By a Biometrica staffer
There’s been a large increase in the number of sextortion complaints made to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) warned at the start of this month. As of July 31, 2021, the FBI IC3 said it had received over 16,000 sextortion complaints this year, with losses exceeding $8 million. Historically, teenagers and young persons have been thought of as the main targets of sextortion scams. But per the FBI IC3, nearly half the sextortion victims who submitted complaints in 2021 were in the 20–39 age group. Victims over 60 years accounted for the third largest reporting age group, while victims under the age of 20 reported the fewest number of complaints.
Still that does not mean that young persons, teenagers, or children aren’t more prone to becoming victims of such scams. In many cases involving younger victims, the fear instilled in them by the scammers stops them from complaining formally, or even talking about it to their closest friends and family. According to the FBI, sextortion happens when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if their demands are not met. And, often, the criminal involved will demand additional sexual images, sexual favors, or money, creating financial and emotional distress for the victim.
In this piece, we give you a broad overview of how sextortion scams tend to occur, and what can be done to protect loved ones, especially children, from them.
How Does It Happen?
As we mentioned earlier, sextortion occurs when a scammer reaches out to a victim and blackmails them, saying their private and sensitive material will be distributed, mostly on online platforms/using the internet, if certain demands are not met. When it comes to adult victims, most who reported complaints to the FBI IC3 this year said their initial contact with the scammer was a mutual decision, normally made using dating websites and apps. But soon after initial contact is established, the fraudster typically requests that the interaction be moved from the website or app to another messaging platform.
The fraudster then moves into the next phase of their scam by instigating the exchange of sexually explicit material, and then encourages the victim to participate via video chat or send their own explicit photos. Immediately after the victim complies, the fraudster blackmails them and demands money to prevent the release of the photos or videos on social media. The fraudster often gains access to the victim’s social media or contact information and threatens to send the images to the victim’s family and friends.
In some cases, regardless of the age of the victim, the scammer’s very first communication with the victim may be a threat. The criminal may claim that they already have a picture or video of you that they will share if you don’t send more pictures.
When it comes to younger victims, predators typically reach out to a young person over a game, app, or social media account, the FBI says in a blog about sextortion published in 2019. Through deception, manipulation, money and gifts, or threats, the predator convinces the young person to produce an explicit video or image. When the young person starts to resist requests to make more images, the criminal then resorts to using threats of harm or exposure of the early images to pressure the child to continue producing content.
There were 1,428 reports of sextortion of minors made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline between October 2013 — when NCMEC began tracking this disturbing form of online sexual victimization of kids — and April 2016. Of those reports, 78% of the victims were female and 15% were male, while gender could not be determined for the rest. The ages of child victims ranged from as young as eight up to 17 years old.
The big differentiator when it comes to younger victims is that more often than not, the scammer makes them believe that they are talking to someone their own age who is interested in a relationship, or to someone offering something of value. For example, a 32-year-old-man from Georgia masqueraded online as a 13-year-old boy, and later as a 25-year-old man, to coerce a 12-year-old girl to produce child pornography and send it to him. The adult can use threats, gifts, money, flattery, lies, or a number of other methods to get a young person to produce these images. But the minute an adult asks a youngster for a graphic image, even a single one, they’ve committed a crime.
There have been recorded instances of scammers who commit such crimes actually studying how to reach and target children and teens. The FBI blog gives the example of a man in his 40s who worked as a youth minister just so that he could learn how teens talked to each other. He then went on to create social media profiles where he pretended to be a teenage girl. He used that digital avatar to start talking to boys online and encourage them to make videos. Needless to say, he was put in prison for his crimes.
In some cases, scammers offer money or other items of value like smartphones, or even currency or credits in a video game, to make their victims comply. Then there are a few cases where the criminals take the threat to a different level, as with the case of one fraudster who threatened to hurt his victim and bomb her school if she didn’t send him pictures.
How To Avoid Falling Prey To Such Scams
Since most of these scams take place online, one big question that could plague many of us is how do you know who can be trusted on the internet? There’s no simple answer, though. Those who commit this type of crime can have dozens of different online accounts and profiles and may be communicating with many young people at the same time in their search to find victims. A good thumb rule, as with the physical world, is to be cautious whenever you are speaking with someone online whom you haven’t already met in real life.
It’s a rule that’s easier suggested than followed because most of us communicate online from the comfort of our own homes where our defenses are, for obvious reasons, not on high alert. As the FBI puts it: “It’s easy to think: I’m on my phone, in my own house, what could possibly happen? But you can very quickly give a criminal the information and material he needs to do you harm.”
Awareness and sensible safety practices online, along with a willingness to ask for help, can put an end to this type of exploitation, the FBI says. Per the Bureau, there are six things that agents who work on these cases want everyone, particularly younger people, to know:
- Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you.
- Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
- Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
- Be in the know. Any content you create online — whether it is a text message, photo, or video — can be made public. And once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.
- Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator, or go to an adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.
What can be done if someone thinks they’ve fallen prey to a sextortion scam?
The very first thing the victim can do, whenever they’re ready, is to reach out to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online at tips.fbi.gov. When it comes to younger victims, the FBI itself says if they feel like they’re not ready to speak to the Bureau, they could go to another trusted adult and tell them about the victimization online and seek help. One key point the Bureau asks victims of such scams to remember is that they are not the ones breaking the law. The criminals count on victims feeling too unsure, scared, or embarrassed to tell someone.
There’s no need for fear from the younger victims’ side, even if it started on an app they were too young to be on; even if they felt okay about making some of the content; even if they accepted money or game credit or something else because in the case of minors, it is outright illegal for an adult to ask for, pay for, or demand graphic sexual images from a minor.
The FBI also has some key pointers for parents and caregivers on how to talk to kids about sextortion, titled Three 30-Second Conversations:
The New Version of Don’t Talk to Strangers
- When you’re online, has anyone you don’t know ever tried to contact or talk to you?
- What did you do or what would you do if that happened?
- Why do you think someone would want to reach a kid online?
- You know, it’s easy to pretend to be someone you’re not online and not every person is a good person. Make sure you block or ignore anything that comes in from someone you don’t know in real life.
The Power of a Picture
- Has anyone you know ever sent a picture of themselves that got passed around school or a team or club?
- What’s possible anytime you send someone a picture?
- What if that picture were embarrassing?
- Can you think about how someone could use that kind of picture against a person?
I’m Here to Help
- I read an article today about kids being pressured to send images and video of their bodies to a person they met online. Have you ever heard about anything like that?
- Sometimes they were being threatened and harassed—scary stuff.
- You know, if you are ever feeling like something is going on—online or off—that feels scary or wrong or over your head, my first concern is going to be helping you. You can always come to me.
For more information from the FBI on sextortion scams, click here.