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COVID-19 and sextortion: An epidemic within a pandemic

March 2, 2023  By Isabelle Sauvé


Photo credit: © Lea / Adobe Stock

Perpetrator (P): “Hey cutie.”

Victim (V): “Hey. You are cute, too.”

P: “You think so? You are so special.”

V: “Thanks.”

P: “What are you up to?”

V: “I’m bored.”

P: “Want to have some fun?”

V: “What do you mean?”

P: “Well unless you are too scared?”

V: “Lol.”

P: “Why don’t you show me how cute the rest of you is!”

V: Explicit pic sent.

P: “Ok, HEAR ME OUT. Send me $1,000 via PayPal or I will send this to everyone you know and post it for the entire world to see. I will ruin your life if you do not do as I say.”

V: “Please don’t. I don’t want my parents to know. Why are you doing this? Please don’t ruin my life…”

 

A short bout of online exchanges between strangers can be enough to be life changing for victims of the most contemporary pandemic: sextortion. Largely affecting youth under the age of 18, sextortion is a form of blackmail which takes place mainly online through various platforms. It is a particularly insidious form of abuse, preying upon vulnerable and unsuspecting individuals. It’s predominantly perpetrated remotely, which creates challenges for law enforcement to investigate and even more to prosecute.

In a typical case of sextortion, the young person is coerced, often within minutes or a few hours of starting the conversation, into sending an unclothed picture or video of themselves. The perpetrator attempts to extort money, additional pictures and videos, or to make other demands such as self-harm by threatening widespread distribution of the sensitive material.

Victims are targeted on various online sites, apps, dating forums and on messaging or gaming platforms. They are typically deceived into believing they are communicating with someone close in age and of their sexual preference or orientation. It often involves a cybercriminal posing as someone else—such as an attractive person—in order to initiate communication of a sexual nature with the victim. Frequently, a fake sexualized picture is first shared with the victim to normalize and coerce the youth into reciprocating. Once the youth shares media containing compromising content, they become entangled in a web of threats and demands.

Sextortion often has a detrimental impact on its victims – it has even been linked to the self-harming and death by suicide of many young people. Victims can become overwhelmed with feelings of shame, helplessness, fear and confusion that prevents them from asking for help or telling anyone. The emotional and psychological impact of sextortion on victims can be severe and long-lasting. In addition to feelings of extreme humiliation and self-blame, victims may also experience depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation.

Once the youth shares media containing compromising content, they become entangled in a web of threats and demands.

In the wake of COVID-19, sextortion has grown exponentially. Indeed, according to Cybertip.ca, there was a 56 per cent increase of reported youth being sextorted between March and August 2022 in Canada. In July and August 2022 exclusively, there were over 600 reports of sextortion. Despite these striking statistics, research indicates this crime remains largely unreported.

Sextortion typically originates from fairly sophisticated international organized criminal networks, but it can also be perpetrated by current or former intimate partners. The large majority of those affected are boys. Girls are most often extorted for more images or videos while boys are mainly extorted for money. Payment demands are frequently made through online payment methods or gift cards. The amounts requested range from a few dollars to multiple thousands of dollars. Cybercriminals will typically entertain negotiation to meet at an amount the victim can afford.

Undoubtedly, law enforcement agencies have a vital role to play in combating sextortion and supporting victims.

To effectively address this issue, officers must be trained on how to best intervene in these cases. For most officers, this intervention will entail referring the case to a sexual exploitation unit. From there, the unit can investigate and there could be the possibility of account takeovers and conducting undercover work.

Police who assist victims of sextortion should also demonstrate a non-judgmental approach. Many underage kids don’t view the sharing of intimate media of themselves as being fundamentally bad; while engaging in this behavior poses a variety of dangers, it can be attributed to natural curiosity and a desire to be accepted or loved. It’s important that youth who fall prey to sextortion be informed that they are indeed victims of a crime. Law enforcement officers can provide support to victims by assisting them in safely removing explicit material from the internet and by connecting them with victim advocacy professionals. When a suspect can be identified, officers should work closely with prosecutors to ensure the bad actors are held accountable for their actions.

Public education remains a key strategy for preventing crime, including sextortion. It is critical for the public, particularly young people, to know about the risks of sharing explicit photos or videos online. Law enforcement agencies should work with schools and agencies to provide age-appropriate education on safe online practices. With collaboration, a larger audience can be reached, and a greater preventative impact can be achieved.


Isabelle Sauvé has a MA in psychology and is a PhD candidate. She is also an ultramarathon/endurance athlete and the Racing the Planet/4 Deserts 2018 Series winner as well as a Guinness World record holder. She can be contacted at: isabelle.sauve@hotmail.com.


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