Not all incidents of online photos of teens are because of carelessness. Many teens are forced to share nude photos for no other reason than to protect themselves against blackmail. “Sextortion” — the latest danger for your teens sweeping the internet. What is it, how prevalent is it, and what are the potential dangers?
Unlike “sexting” and online flirting, “sextortion” is a criminal act often perpetrated by repeat offenders. “Sextortion” can take two forms — 1) threatening or harassing an individual online to get them to share sexually explicit photos and videos, or 2) threatening to distribute sexually explicit photos/videos to wider parties if the victim does not send either money or more sexually explicit material. In addition to soliciting and illegally distributing sexually explicit images of minors, sextortion schemes can involve other traumatic threats, such as perpetrators threatening to kill animals or harm individuals if their victim does not comply with their demands.
The trend is a growing threat with reported complaints of “sextortion” rising by 32 percent between 2010 and 2013. The danger is particularly high for teens, as the Brookings Institute has discovered that 71% of “sextortion” cases have involved minors under the age of 18. As with many sexual predators in the twenty-first century, the most common site for online abuse is social media, with 91% of cases involving minor victims occurring on social media platforms. Another study, conducted by non-profit Thorn and the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, found that 54% of “sextortion” cases occurred on social media platforms, while 41% occurred on messaging and photo apps. More than half of victims reported having known their “sextortionist” prior to the incident, but offenders also typically have multiple victims with cases ranging from offenders with ten to one-hundred individual victims.
With the prevalence of anonymity and the ease of creating a false identity online, many are also victims of unknown offenders who could live across the world from them. Offenders lure their victims, particularly unsuspecting minors who readily share their information publicly on social media, into a false sense of security, persuading them to share intimate photographs or information and then using it to blackmail or extort them. Some “sextortionists” use even more sinister tactics, tricking victims into downloading malware to their computers, which allows the offenders to gain access to all photos, files, and videos on their computer, enabling them to obtain private and sensitive material that they could use against their victims to extort pornographic videos, photographs, and money.
One of the biggest issues with “sextortion” is that victims don’t report their harassment because of shame or concern that they won’t be believed. A third of respondents to the Thorn study said they hadn’t reported the attack. Those that did report the incidents said they were mostly met with negative or dismissive responses–law enforcement has no official policies for dealing with “sextortion,” and tech companies often require extensive, complicated documentation to file official complaints. This is a concern because without repercussions some offenders have moved their assault offline to rape or sexually assault victims.
Beyond this, “sextortion” can have a devastating personal effect on victims. A Department of Justice study found thatextortion victims engage in cutting, have depression, drop out of school or grades decline, as well as engage in other forms of self-harm at an alarming rate. In fact, a 2015 FBI analysis of 43 sextortion cases involving child victims revealed at least two victims committed suicide and at least ten more attempted suicide. Thus, at least 28 percent of these cases had at least one sextortion victim who committed or attempted suicide.
All of the above has been evidenced in “sextortion” cases that have made the news. The most notorious “sextortion” offender Luis Mijangos amply displayed the tendency of perpetrators to have a wide-reaching net–investigators discovered that he had at least 230 victims, reaching as far as New Zealand. Two George Mason University students were recently the victims of “sextortion,” when an offender earned their trust, convinced them to perform sex acts on a webcam, and then threatened to distribute the video if they didn’t pay $5000.
More troubling is the story of victim Amanda Todd, a 13-year-old Canadian girl. In 2010, she bared her breasts in an online video chat, which was then distributed to her Facebook friends when she refused to meet his blackmail demands. In 2013, the distraught Todd posted a video explaining her horrifying experience and then, ultimately, committed suicide.
As the number of “sextortion” incidents continue to rise, be aware of its dangers, warning signs, and regularly talk to your children if you think something’s wrong. The repercussions of “sextortion” extend far beyond the emotional and physical dangers of online sexual assault.