VANCOUVER -- A growing number of Surrey residents, both men and women, are being targeted by online extortionists who threaten to share images of them in the nude, according to police.

Surrey RCMP said it received 77 reports of sexual image extortion in the second quarter of 2020, which is more than double the 32 that came in during the first quarter.

Authorities said some of the victims were initially contacted through dating apps or social media, and shared nude images and videos willingly because they believed they were engaged in a mutual relationship.

Cpl. Joanie Sidhu said pandemic-related loneliness may have left some people vulnerable to this kind of criminal behaviour.

"It's possible that the isolation from COVID and people seeking out relationships through the Internet may have been a contributor," she told CTV News.

After people shared nude images, the extortionists threatened to spread them online if the victim didn't either pay money or supply more sexual content.

Staff Sgt. Lyndsay O'Ruairc of the Surrey RCMP Special Victims Unit said people should think carefully before sharing that kind of material online.

"Ask yourself if you are comfortable letting go of your control over those images," O'Ruairc said in a statement.

"Images can be easily distributed and made public, and while it's illegal to distribute nude photos without consent, the consequences for the victim can be significant."

Other extortion victims received emails claiming someone had hacked their computer and stolen nude images.

They are then ordered to send money or bitcoin to prevent the content from being distributed – though authorities noted there's "no proof" in those cases that anything was ever actually stolen.

"We do want to get the message out to the public that if you're the victim of this scam, do not send money," Sidhu said. "In the cases we looked into, there was no validity to the claims."

According to Surrey RCMP, this kind of scam was especially prevalent in April, but that sexual image extortion reports have continued over the summer.

Police said people can protect themselves by securing their devices with complex passwords and by disabling their webcams whenever they aren't in use.

Anyone who has been the victim of an extortion can contact the Surrey RCMP detachment and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.