Maybe it's too much time away from people, maybe it's because COVID-19 protocols have made us lonely and vulnerable, maybe it's because the spammers have more time on their hands. Whatever the reason, the FBI warns there's been a surge in sextortion cases this year.

According to a press release earlier this month, the FBI says it has received over 16,000 complaints so far in 2021, and that total losses from those cases exceed $8 million. There's no doubt the numbers are higher because many people will never tell someone or report it to authorities.

Here's how sextortion attempts generally happen: The victim strikes up a conversation or chat on a dating site or app, or maybe with someone they've met virtually on social media. The chats may go on for days and may seem fairly safe. The perp on the other side of the conversation may say they're a certain age and gender to make themselves more compatible with the victim.

At some point, the perpetrator will ask to exchange photos. This might lead to them asking for "sexy" or "nude" pictures. Of course, they may send a nude photo they've found online or they've obtained from another victim. Once the victim shares a photo, photos or video, the perpetrator will demand more and when the victim doesn't respond, the perpetrator admits who they are and demands more photos or videos or they'll send what they have to all of the victims friends. The perpetrator might then increase the demand to send money or even meet in person.

In August, an Atlanta man was sentenced to prison after being convicted of using this tactic to extort multiple underage boys while posing as a woman. Of the reported complaints, the FBI says nearly half of extortion victims were in the 20-39 age group.

Another tactic perpetrators use is email. They manage to spoof the email address of the victim so that it appears their account has been compromised. The email claims software was installed on their phone and captured photos or videos of the victim while they watched pornography. The perpetrator threatens to send the video or photos to everyone on the victims' contact list and post them to their social media accounts. The demanded ransom is generally in the $1,000-$3,000 range and is to be paid in bitcoin.

While the FBI has not released the number of victims of this scam, many victims never tell anyone about the email or report it to authorities. If the victim watches porn or visits porn websites on their phone, there is enough of a concern to convince them to send money.

The FBI has these tips on how to protect yourself from sextortion attempts:

NEVER send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter why are or who they say they are.

Do not open attachments from people you do not know. Links can secretly hack your electronic devices using malware to gain access to your private data, photos, and contacts, or control your web camera and microphone without your knowledge.

Turn off your electronic devices and web cameras when not in use.

If you are receiving sextortion threats, remember you are not alone as thousands are victimized by this scam. Stop all interaction with the extortionist and do not be embarrassed or afraid to contact law enforcement. File a complaint with the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov