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Law and Crime

What is Sextortion and Why Should We Be Concerned?

Sextortion crimes are on the rise and adolescents are being targeted.

In 2018, the FBI announced the arrest of a 32-year-old male who coerced a 12-year-old girl into creating and then sending him a partially nude photo of herself. This cybercrime is known as sextortion, and anecdotal evidence to date suggests that sextortion is on the rise. The Cambridge Dictionary defines sextortion as, “the practice of forcing someone to do something, particularly to perform sexual acts, by threatening to publish naked pictures of them, or sexual information about them.” In many cases, this is true; however, I prefer the broader definition created by the nonprofit organization, Thorn, which states that sextortion, “involves threats to expose a sexual image in order to make an individual do something for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation” since some online predators are more interested in obtaining money, in seeking revenge, or wanting to humiliate the targeted victim. To compound matters, a 2016 US Department of Justice report stressed that sextortion is on the rise and is, “by far the most significantly growing threat to children,” and that “sextortion cases tend to have more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses.”

While anyone can become a victim of sextortion (minors and adults), the vast majority of victims are under the age of 18. Cyber predators, the majority of whom are men, often feign to be much younger than they are and will actively search for their victims on popular social media sites, particularly sites that cater predominantly to minors. In most cases, the cyber predator will establish an online relationship with the targeted victim, romantically flirt with them, and in time (once they have gained the victim’s trust) they persuade the victim to send them a sexually provocative picture. Once the image has been sent, the cyber predator will use that image to essentially blackmail the victim. If they refuse, the predator threatens to share the image(s) online with the victim’s friends and family.

In the aforementioned case, the 32-year-old predator pretended to be a 13-year-old boy. After the victim sent him a partially nude image of herself, he was eventually able to take control over one of her social media accounts by resetting her password, thereby locking her out. Now that he had full control of her personal information and the nude image, he was able to easily coerce the victim into sending additional nude images, all of which, according to the FBI, met the federal definition of child pornography. Some reading this article might be quick to blame the victim; however, you must keep in mind that this is more times than not a skilled predator who knows exactly how to manipulate his victims. He knows exactly what to say, especially knowing that many teenagers are striving for attention, trying to establish their own identities and independence from their parents and, at times, rebelling against their parents' rules. The predator is able to talk to them as if they were another teenager who understands them and can relate to what the victim is experiencing.

Investigating and Prosecuting Cyber Predators

In the aforementioned U.S. Department of Justice study, researchers noted that investigating such crimes can be incredibly difficult. Recent technological advances have emboldened child sexual offenders, particularly those operating primarily online, to an unprecedented degree. “Among the most daunting, and the most prevalent, of those challenges is offender utilization of anonymization networks, including Tor and Freenet, to obscure their identities. These networks enable offenders to route all of their incoming and outgoing Internet traffic through a number of different locations anywhere in the world, so that law enforcement cannot use traditional means to ascertain the location of those offenders.”

Even more disturbing is the fact that technologically savvy offenders are increasingly utilizing encryption to protect not just their identities, but the actual child exploitation materials they create, share, and collect, from observation by law enforcement. Encryption is increasingly a standard feature of data storage devices, often resulting in the total inability of law enforcement to access customer data, even by lawful processes or court orders.

Christian Wiediger / Unsplash
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Source: Christian Wiediger / Unsplash

Target Hardening

Admittedly, there is no foolproof way to completely eliminate the crime of sextortion; however, preventative measures can be taken by utilizing situational crime prevention strategies, specifically target hardening. The National Criminal Justice Reference Service describes target hardening as a strategic approach to preventing crime and victimization by reducing opportunities for predators by making it more difficult for them to target their intended victims. Target hardening is intended to delay, disrupt, and potentially destroy the predator’s chances of engaging in criminal opportunities.

Empirical research has repeatedly supported the notion that most criminal offenders seek out victims who they perceive to be easy targets. If you make it more difficult, or harder, to become a victim, your chances of being victimized are reduced. In a 2007 article titled Cyberstalking: An Analysis of Online Harassment and Intimidation, I applied the Routine Activities Theory to help explain how individuals (adults and children) can reduce the likelihood of being victimized. Routine activities theory assumes that an individual will commit a crime if there is a motivated offender, a suitable target, and absence of a capable guardian. When these three elements converge, crime is likely to occur.

In short, the routine activities that individuals partake in over the course of their day makes some individuals more susceptible to being victimized because they are perceived to be “suitable targets” by calculated, motivated offender. In terms of suitable targets, the choice to engage in a crime is influenced by the offender’s perception of the target’s vulnerability; the more suitable and accessible the target, the more likely the crime will occur. In the context of sextortion involving minors as victims, the absence of capable guardians would be that of parents or guardians. Once again, this is not to suggest that parents are to blame. I have experience working with sexual offenders and I can say with the utmost confidence that child sexual predators are among the most manipulative of all criminal types. They know exactly how to drive a wedge between the targeted victims and the parents to gain the victim’s trust. They are truly master manipulators who embrace trickery and deception as their modus operandi.

What Can be Done to Minimize the Likelihood of Being Victimized?

In a 2018 publication titled, “Sextortion Among Adolescents: Results from a National Survey of US Youth,” Drs. Patchin and Hinduja of the Cyberbullying Research Center emphasized that “parents, educators, youth service providers, and adolescents themselves would benefit from a deeper understanding of the nature and extent of sextortion among teens.” Further, school resource officers, law enforcement, and others who work directly with children and adolescents should familiarize themselves with current laws regarding the distribution of explicit content and extortion.

In the words of Robert Boyce, “knowledge is power, knowledge shared is power multiplied.” Therefore, we, as parents, educators, and others who work with children and adolescents, must confront the “reality of sextortion in an effort to open up the lines of communication to both prevent the behaviors from occurring in the first place and prompt expedited intervention to minimize harm when it does,” as noted by noted experts, Drs. Patchin and Hinduja.

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