Why Every Parent Needs to Know About Sextortion

“Sextortion” is the fastest growing crime against children on the Internet, according to the FBI. But no official records are kept, and only five states have made sextortion, where a perpetrator threatens victims with releasing explicit images unless they perform pornography on demand, a standalone crime.

Prosecutors say if we don’t start actively telling kids—with some victims as young as seven years old—that sextortion could happen to anyone (even those who have never shared a single intimate image), the problem is only going to get worse.

Although the FBI does not yet officially track instances of sextortion, the currently available data indicates that the problem is expanding. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children founda 150 percent rise in reports of sextortion to its CyberTipline between 2014 and 2016.

The stories are horrifying. A little girl who is threatened that her dog will be killed if she doesn’t send a naked picture. Forced sibling sex, involving 7- and 8-year-olds, along with bestiality. The 12-year-old girl who got a computer for Christmas then fell into a conversation with a predator who told her he was remotely controlling the device and could explode it like a bomb if she did not take her top off.

“Sextortion is definitely on the rise, particularly targeting young women,” warned Mona Sedky, a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, who has spent the last six years prosecuting victims of sextortion. “I had a case very recently, where the defendant sextorted dozens and dozens of young women all over the country. One brave young woman, after being sextorted for weeks and weeks, finally confided in her friend. If it hadn’t been for that one brave victim to finally come forward, the defendant would still be at large today victimizing other young women.”

This week, Ashton Kutcher’s child advocacy non-profit Thorn launched a public awareness campaign at stopsexstortion.com (victims can also get immediate help by texting “thorn” to 741741) and coordinated messaging from Facebook, Twitter and celebrities like Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell, who shot a PSA, and Cindy McCain, who tweeted, “If #sextortion happens to you, there is #NoShame in asking for help, I’m here to listen.”

A major part of the problem is that it is so uncomfortable for minors to tell anyone when they are being sexually blackmailed, which is what makes sextortion so insidious, and sometimes fatal. In Utah, a 21-year-old man a month away from graduation killed himself in 2015 rather than tell his mother the details of what happened to him.

“For the first time in the history of the world you can sexually assault somebody who’s not on the same continent as you—and by the way, you can do it to 50 people,” said senior fellow Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, who conducted the 2016 groundbreaking study on the widespread “virtual sexual assault” that is the sextortion phenomenon. The scalability of crimes and the sadistic pathology of the perpetrators are part of what it makes sextortion so ominous. Criminals keep intricate logs, refer to what they do as “slaving,” and get off on the humiliation of providing deadlines and routines to perform demeaning sexual acts on cue.

“A huge amount of it is exercising control over people in particularly brutal and sustained fashion,” Wittes said.

States without sexual blackmail laws can use federal child pornography statutes to get justice for victims, but in some states, the extortion laws are restricted to just money or property, not forced sexual conduct. Many cases are being handled at the federal level.

Attorney Carrie Goldberg is one of the lawyers who is leading the fight. Threatened with revenge porn herself when she was younger, she contributed to the Brookings Institution study and wrote a piece about how perpetrators lure in their victims. In her work, she has removed more than 17,000 nonconsensual pornographic images and videos from the Internet, and a significant number of these were created by victims of sextortion.

“Sexual extortionists are vicious and frighteningly patient perverts who essentially turn their targets into sex slaves by deceiving them over months on social media through fake profiles and gaining their victims’ trust before requesting nudes or images,” Goldberg said. “When a target gives in — often after a lot of guilt and pestering from the offender — they are then blackmailed and the campaign of horror deepens. Victims are made to do shocking and degrading acts on camera for the perv’s enjoyment. Like all sex crimes, this is about control through fear and degradation.”

One of the most recent high-profile cases yet, which was prosecuted by Sedky, involved Michael Ford, a State Department employee who was working in London, where he spent two years hacking into online accounts and stealing photographs, then threatening about 75 women to provide pornographic materials—or else.

Ford made it appear that he was right outside his windows, likely by using Google Earth, to identify their apartments and relate details. His threats to women included specifics like, “I like your red fire escape. Easy to climb.” One woman fell asleep every night with a knife under her pillow. He was sentenced to 57 months.

The FBI does not keep official tracking records for sextortion yet (one of the problems which advocates say needs to change), but Wittes’ study last year identified 80 cases, involving more than 3,000 victims, and he says it’s the tip of the iceberg.

“We’ve only scratched the surface,” he said. “The community of victims is enormous, and yet they’re not in touch with each other. There’s no organization that represents them. Nobody identifies them because they’re not trying to re-victimize people. But it produces this asymmetry in that everybody is aware of the problem of revenge porn, and most people are not aware of the problem of sextortion.”

Part of the problem is the silence on the topic in schools and amongst parents, which predators then exploit, turning their victimization into something so big in a child’s mind that they could never dare tell another soul.… Read the rest

Teen ‘sextortion’ cases unfolding throughout Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Justice Department has called it “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”

And based on recent investigations, the issue of “sextortion” isn’t slowing down, including in Utah.

Sextortion is a form of online blackmail, typically targeting teenagers or preteens.

The average sextortion case starts with children who are 12 to 14 years old who are using social media and other apps to message others who they assume are also juveniles, said Steve Cagen, head of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in Utah and three other states. Eventually, the other “juvenile” will gain the teen’s trust and request a nude photo.

“But they’re talking to a 40-year-old or 50-year-old man, who once they have one photo will then extort them for more. It’s called sextortion. It’s happening a lot. And we are asking parents to talk to your kids, because it can happen in every neighborhood,” he said.

The emotional destruction a child suffers after being guilted into sending photos or videos out of fear of being exposed is gut-wrenching for even the most hardened of investigators.

“It is difficult when we have to look in the faces of children who have been exploited, who will never be the same again,” Cagen said.

Often, the crime leaves child victims with severe depression and thoughts of suicide, according to the Justice Department.

“Sextortion is brutal. This is not a matter of playful consensual sexting,” according to the Brookings Institution, a public policy organization that conducts research it hopes will help lead to solving societal problems. “Sextortion, rather, is a form of sexual exploitation, coercion and violence, often but not always of children. In many cases, the perpetrators seem to take pleasure in their victims’ pleading and protestations that they are scared and underage.

“In multiple cases we have reviewed, victims contemplate, threaten or even attempt suicide — sometimes to the apparent pleasure of their tormentors.”

Sextortion in Utah

Earlier this year, the Deseret News examined with local police and school officials the exploding problem of nude selfies being exchanged among Utah’s high school students. The issue has become so prevalent that many teens have accepted it as normal. It’s what our generation does, they say. Law enforcers and school administrators warned, however, that teens freely sending nude photos could also open themselves up to the possibility of extortion.

Those fears have been realized.

The Deseret News has uncovered several investigations through search warrants filed throughout the state over the past few months by law enforcement agencies of possible sextortion incidents. Many of these investigations are still ongoing. Some examples:

• In Uintah County last month, the sheriff’s office was asked to investigate a 17-year-old boy who was allegedly being blackmailed by a woman.

“It was reported that (the boy) had recently accepted a friend request from “Angella Scotty” who (the boy) did not know. (The boy) at some point had been communicating with “Angella” via Facebook video and admitted that he had been naked in the video chat at some point,” the warrant states. Angella then demanded $500 or she would post the video online, according to a warrant.

• Also last month, West Valley police were called to investigate a complaint from a 17-year-old girl who reported “being exposed to the world.” The girl said someone she knew “had shared nude photographs and videos of her” on Facebook and Snapchat, a warrant states.

The girl told detectives the videos were taken in 2014 when she was 14 and intoxicated. Those videos were later shared with at least two other people.

• In Millard County last month, a 13-year-old girl told police she had “sent hundreds of naked pictures of herself to other male juveniles” and has “received many pictures of naked males ranging in age from 12 years old to 17 years old. She has been asked for naked pictures of herself from all the males.”

• In yet another case in August, Salt Lake police were asked to investigate a girl who was receiving messages on Facebook and Instagram from an unknown person demanding nude photos “or he will publicly post a nude photo he already has of her,” a warrant states. The harassment continued as the person “repeatedly demanded more nude photos, and if she does not comply will post that nude photo of her on social media.” The girl told investigators she gave a nude photo to an ex-boyfriend a few years earlier, but didn’t know how someone else would have gotten it.

• In Mt. Pleasant, Sanpete County, in July, a 17-year-old boy told police he had accepted a friend request on Facebook from an uknown woman claiming to be from California. One day, the woman requested a video chat with the boy.

“When (the boy) opened the video chat, he found the woman naked on her bed,” a warrant states. The woman convinced the boy to also take his clothes off.

“The woman told him she recorded the video and that he needed to pay her $3,000 or she was going to send the video to YouTube and all his friends on his Facebook list.”

• In June, St. George police investigated a case of a high school girl who started getting requests on Instagram for nude photos.

“(The girl) didn’t know who the person was but he kept telling her that he had other sexually explicit pictures of her. (She) admitted to having sent pictures of herself to other boys two years prior to this event. (She) said it was these photos that she was being blackmailed with,” a warrant states.

The person later told her that “if she blocked this message he would send out photos of her to everyone at the school.”

• Also in St. George in May, police were called to investigate the case of a 13-year-old girl who met a male on an app. The two continued to talk via Skype. The male, who used the name “Demon Paradox,” never turned his video chat on, but convinced the young girl to take her clothes off, the warrant states.

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