Teens will have more time over the summer to spend online, but before they do, they should be aware of a little-known sex crime called “sextortion.”
Sextortion takes revenge porn – when perpetrators distribute sexually explicit content without the subject’s consent – to the next level.
In sextortion cases, perpetrators acquire a victim’s explicit photos or videos – with or without consent – and threaten to release it unless the victim meets their demands, experts say. Offenders may blackmail or coerce victims into sending additional sexual content or money, or to perform a sex act.
“Like all sex crimes, sextortion is about control,” said Carrie Goldberg, owner of C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, a victim’s rights law firm in Brooklyn, New York, via email.
Parents and high school teachers can find answers to questions about this type of remote sexual assault below.
1. Who are “sextorters?” A perpetrator could be a partner from a romantic relationship gone sour, says David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Or they may be strangers victims met or were communicating with online, Finkelhor says.
In one case, an offender tricked victims into downloading malware that allowed him to remotely take control of their computers and spy on them via their webcams and microphones without their knowledge.
2. What should parents and teachers do if teens are being sextorted? “It’s important for the adult to remember that they really do need to be responsive and supportive,” says Lindsey Olson, executive director of the exploited children division at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Adults need to remain calm and should praise the teen for letting them know about the issue.
It’s really important for parents to encourage their kids to notify the police, says Mona Sedky, a senior trial attorney with the Computer Crime & Intellectual Property section of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I know that they want to delete everything because they don’t want anybody to know and they don’t want to relive this nightmare,” she says. But law enforcement needs victims to preserve all communications – from both sides – and all photographs, she says. Save everything and if photographs do end up getting distributed or published, try to keep track of where it went and who got it.
Many major social media networks have a button where users can report online abuse, she says, and these platforms usually act quickly. But first, victims should take a screen capture of the material, print it out and save it for law enforcement.
“Please, please tell another adult. You’re not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Sedky says.
Aside from contacting the police or their closest FBI office, families can report crimes to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline.
Prevention is key, Olson says. Parents and teachers should have ongoing conversations with teens about online safety and appropriate behavior. Teens may be afraid of getting in trouble or feel embarrassed, so it’s important parents have conversations beforehand so teens feel comfortable coming forward to parents or trusted adults. If teens try to handle these situations on their own, it could escalate very quickly, she says.
Teens should not comply with any threats, she says. They should stop communicating with the person making the threat and tell a trusted adult.
3. What are the effects of sextortion? The effects can be severe, says Finkelhor, also an author of a recent study on the issue. Some victims have to move, change jobs or get counseling – it can be very traumatizing, he says.
The consequences could also be severe for teenage offenders. “In theory, if a minor extorts nude photos from another minor they are producing child porn, which is a criminal offense,” said Goldberg.
Parents need to know that victims are devastated by these crimes, Sedky says. Victims should be treated very carefully because they are emotionally very vulnerable.