Extortion emails with the recipient’s password as a subject line have hit an unknown number of Canadians in the past week.
They have prompted one Nova Scotia woman to caution others, and to ask why she needs to provide personal banking information in order to report it.
The national federal agency set up to take those complaints confirms the banking information is required, but said it’s well secured.
Dianne Huskins of Caledonia, N.S., woke up on Thursday to find an email with the subject line ‘freespirit.”
She said that caught her attention because “that was the password to everything” a decade ago.
“Your spidey sense starts tingling,” Huskins said.
She opened the email.
“I’m aware, freespirit, is your password. I require your 100% attention for the coming Twenty-four hrs, or I will make sure that you live out of embarrassment for the rest of your existence,” it said.
Scam making the rounds
It went on to say the sender had a sexually explicit video of her. They vowed to send it to random people in her phone contacts unless she sent $2,000 US in bitcoins to a specific address.
“It was quite hilarious, telling me about my online exploits,” said Huskins, who has never made such a video so wasn’t concerned about the email’s threat.
Jeff Thomson, a senior RCMP intelligence analyst with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, said Huskins wasn’t the only one to receive the email.
The anti-fraud centre is the federal government organization where Canadians are encouraged to report fraud.
“I don’t have specific numbers at this time but I can say we saw a huge volume of reporting come in over the past week in relation to this particular email, so it is certainly widespread and hitting people right across Canada,” Thomson said.
He said in most cases the passwords are old ones. He can’t confirm where they came from.
Old data breach likely to blame
“It’s highly likely it comes from an old data breach where the fraudsters, criminals or hackers have received emails and passwords for individuals, and they have a big list tied to these past breaches,” Thomson said.
He said he is not aware of any victims but suspects there are people who have received these emails and are concerned.
While Huskins was concerned for others, not herself, the effort to report the email stopped her in her tracks.
The COVID-19 pandemic prevents people from reporting to the anti-fraud centre by phone.
In order to report the email, Huskins was required to log in using her banking information or by using her Government of Canada credentials.
“I thought that was just the most bizarre thing I’d ever heard because why in the world would anybody want to do that? Huskins said. “Why would I click on a link and put in my banking information to report something that was fraudulent to begin with?”
Anti-fraud centre has heard concerns
Huskins contacted CBC to ask if the site was legitimate. It is.
“Our online reporting system follows a Government of Canada standard for GCKey which is a secure portal that allows Canadians to access government services,” said Thomson.
He said it’s a security feature the federal government uses for access to all Government of Canada services including the Canadian Firearms Centre and CRA accounts.
At the same time, Thomson acknowledges he has heard concerns.
“Certainly the optics there can be negative,” he said. “You’ve just been a victim of phishing, you’ve provided your personal financial information to fraudsters, and now you’re being asked for it again so it certainly can create some hesitation. But in most cases, once we speak to people who have these concerns, they understand.”
Huskins said “it didn’t sit right with me then and it still doesn’t sit right with me.”
‘They looked really sketchy’
She thinks she should not have to provide personal banking information or create an account in order to report fraudulent activity.
“I really think whoever operates that fraud website really should think about that because they looked really sketchy,” she said.
As for those who received the email and may be concerned about videos being circulated, Thomson said people need to recognize the email is just one of many scams in the country involving unsolicited texts and emails. He urged people to report these incidents to their local police departments.