In our digital-first world, the nature of criminal activity is increasingly taking place online – and extortion, sextortion and blackmail are no exception. In February the FBI, in partnership with International Law enforcement agencies in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, issued a joint warning about the global sextortion crisis. According to FBI statistics in 2022, law enforcement agencies received over 7,000 reports related to the online sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys.
With the risk of sextortion among young people increasing, organised crime gangs are taking full advantage of the fact that sextortion can be deployed with relative ease, at a distance and in high volume. The risk reward ratio for criminals is high.
The exact figures of those affected in the UK and globally are hard to quantify as the majority of incidents go unreported – a factor criminals rely on. It is estimated that thousands of adults and minors are targeted each year. There is no question that this number is increasing.
Sextortion victims are silenced by fear, a sense of being alone, embarrassment and desperation. How will being exposed impact them and those around them, now and in the long term? This concern may be exacerbated when children of high-net-worth individuals are targeted by criminals who expect to extort larger sums. The fear over damage to a parent’s reputation can be a strong influence in remaining silent.
What approach might a criminal take?
Understanding the criminal’s methodology is the first step in protecting yourself. Although every case of extortion and sextortion is unique, there are common themes, patterns and tactics that we see.
Generally, the attack may take one of two approaches. In the first, the victim may receive an email from a criminal in which they claim to already have a revealing photos or videos of the victim (child or adult). The criminal will then threaten to share the image or video if the victim does not send more pictures or money.
The second approach, increasingly involving young people, starts when the victim believes they are communicating with someone their own age, often a ‘young girl’ who is interested in a relationship. The criminal will often approach victims on dating apps, social media or gaming sites. They will then use any means – gifts, money, flattery, lies – to get a young person to share an image.
In either instance, once the criminal has the image, they then threaten to distribute the sexually explicit and compromising information with the victim’s inner circle, generally friends and family, unless they agree to pay a ransom, or in some instances, provide more images.
Targets are often victims of circumstance, unlucky to fall foul of a chance criminal, who may be targeting numerous victims. Increasingly, though, there is evidence of a trend toward specifically planned attacks, due to status or wealth. These may be, for instance, children of high-net-worth individuals, politicians or celebrities. Criminals are using increasingly sophisticated methods to pick these ‘high value’ targets in order to improve their chances of success.
Identifying these people may involve weeks of online research prior to engaging with the victim. The criminals will undertake in-depth research to map out the victim’s behaviours and networks, including family or friends, which helps target the victim and increases their perceived leverage with the victim’s inner circle.
Money plays a major part in cases of sextortion, but unfortunately, payment is no guarantee that the sexual blackmail will end. More often than not, this demonstrates to the criminal that you are willing to pay: they may then come back and demand money in increasing amounts if any is sent following the initial request.
What can young people do to protect themselves against sextortion?
It’s important to remember that criminals prey on the fear of exposure and the anguish it will cause, especially for children who may feel they cannot ask for help or report the abuse when they are caught in this cycle. Tragically, young people have taken their own lives after being targeted in this way. Young people should understand how sextortion crimes occur, openly discuss online safety and learn what preventative measures they should take on social media.
· Encourage your children to report suspicious behaviour and speak up if they have any concerns, however embarrassing it may be. This removes some of the criminals’ leverage.
· Although payment may seem like the easy way out. the advice is never to pay the ransom – the criminals are in fact more likely to come back with further demands. Instead, cease all communications and preserve any emails or messages as evidence.
· Be selective about what you share online, especially your personal information and passwords. Enhance the security settings on your social media accounts, a criminal may be able to figure out a lot of information about you. Do not share intimate images or videos online even with people you know. Videos can be recorded, images can be saved or have screenshots made from them, and easily published online where they can be shared and copied further.
· Be conscious of who you are interacting with online, even if they claim to be someone you know – there is no way to verify this from a picture or video. Criminals can pretend to be anyone online.
· Even if content is ultimately published online, this does not mean there are not remedial measures that can be taken and various legal tools can be deployed. For example, the content will almost certainly be unlawful and break the website’s terms.
The record statistics of those impacted by sextortion and online blackmail schemes represents only a fraction of the true number. We must remain vigilant to the threat, especially as criminals’ tactics evolve, and continue to exercise caution when communicating in the digital world.
It is also vital to grow the conversation around this issue and raise awareness, especially for youngsters. Only by talking about it can we help remove the leverage that criminals prey on.
If it’s happened to you, don’t panic. You may naturally feel ashamed or embarrassed, but remember, you are the victim. You can also get in touch with CEOP (the police Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command) at www.ceop.police.uk/ceop-reporting