Efforts to inform some of the region's most vulnerable residents of possible scams has placed a spotlight on phone and online-based scams targeting the elderly and disabled in recent years, but a resurgence in an exploitation-based reports over recent weeks has led local police to issue a warning a different group — young adults.
Local police have reported an uptick in the number of attempted efforts to extort money from naive and lonely young adults, often conducted through a multi-step process that ropes the inexperienced in with promises of a relationship or sex that allow the scammer to then blackmail the victim.
And these efforts are far more successful than people realize.
"We've dealt with several cases in recent years, and I'm not talking one or two or even something you could count on your hands," said Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey. "Unfortunately, there are a number of cases that have involved younger victims, usually men between the ages of 18 and 25, who were victimized after being convinced to share sexually graphic images."
The scam effort, known as "sexploitation," can work in a variety of ways, but the general concept is simple: the scammer contacts the victim via popular online social networks such as Facebook, Tinder or Snapchat and claim to be either a friend from another network or the friend of a friend. The scammer then strikes up conversation and offers enticing pictures before asking the victim to share their own sexual images back.
Such was the case Tuesday in Hopkinton where, after falling victim to the scam, a 19-year-old reported he had been convinced to send pictures of himself involved in an explicit activity before the scammer notified him it was recorded and would be shared to his pages publicly if a payment was not made.
Hopkinton Police Capt. Mark Carrier said the agency is working to do what they can to help the victim — he could not discuss further details of the case because it remains active — but said that it incredibly difficult to follow the money once sent and even more difficult to determine where the scammer was when communications began.
"They are almost never who they say they are, and are certainly not the women they send pictures pretending to be," Carrier explained.
In many cases, Carrier said these scams originate outside the country, which makes it difficult to track. Signals are pinged to provide false information regarding IP addresses and money is obtained from victims through either wire transfer or gift cards.
Carrier said unlike on television, where forensic efforts are often instantaneous, it takes time to investigate these connections and by the time police have determined where the transfer went or the communication originated from, the money has been transferred several more times and the scammer has moved on.
Lacey said when it comes to these efforts, young adults may be the most common victims but that others are equally susceptible. He said the agency has taken similar complaints from married individuals who paid to try and avoid disruption in their lives after an attempted affair and other similar blackmail efforts.
Both Lacey and Carrier also said that for as many reports as have been made, there are likely countless ones that were never reported. The victims are often "very embarrassed" once they realize what happened, they said, and are afraid to tell anyone.
If you do fall victim, the two said those targeted should never pay. In most cases, payment will only lead to additional blackmail and has, in some cases, led to victims making multiple payments with no resolution.
"My advice to anyone with concerns or who is victimized is to come forward," Lacey said. "We are not here to judge; we are here to help."
Carrier said when it comes to this or other scams, including the most common phone-based, the best thing the public can do is to be skeptical of fast advances or immediate demands for payment, and to regularly inform themselves to recognize potential scams.
The Federal Trade Commission provides regular alerts and informational posts on the latest trends and scams. For more information, including tips and alerts, visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog.
Both Carrier and Lacey also urged local residents to stop and consider proposals before deciding to take any risks.
"It's no different here than what we tell the elderly. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Carrier said.