The internet allows for a layer of anonymity. When talking with someone online, none of us really know who this person is, whether they are who they say they are, or the information they have provided about themselves is the truth. There are many who are eager for new relationships, fun and excitement who enter into exchanges with a new online ‘friend’ not considering the potential consequences of their actions. In recent years, case after case of one person being exploited by another through the internet has emerged, leading many to highlight concerns for rate at which these cases are multiplying.
The UK, in particular, is a country which has seen a significant rise in cases labelled as ‘sextortion’ from less than 100 cases reported in 2012 to over 900 reported just four years later in 2016. Often discussed in the same realm as revenge porn, where disgruntled ex-partners publicly share intimate images or videos to shame and embarrass their ex, sextortion is based on the same principle. Where it differs is the demands for money which flood in after these sexually explicit and personal images have been obtained. It is blackmail feeding from the natural embarrassment of individuals who are told unless they pay up, these pictures will find themselves in the email, social media profiles and mailboxes of their families, friends, co-workers and peers.
In many cases the perpetrator of these crimes is not an ex-partner of the victim but an individual they have met online, someone they believed in and trusted and thought they were building a relationship with. The National Crime Agency reports that victims of sextortion are not always young, impressionable and somewhat naïve teens, they have been adults ranging from people in their early 20s to those in their 80s.
“This is a really worrying, emerging new threat. As a result to this crime we’ve already had four young men in the UK kill themselves because they saw no way out of the situation they had got themselves into.” – National Crime Agency
Camera phones and webcams provide opportunity to take and share images and videos on impulse, an action which can turn very nasty, very quickly. The victims of these crimes are in no way to blame. While at worst, their actions could be labelled as naive, they have chosen to share such material in good faith, believing they are sharing it with an equally minded individual who they have got to know. The blame lies firmly with the individuals behind the screens, actively seeking this explicit material from unsuspecting victims, simply to use it for exploitation.
Sextortion, it has been discovered, is not a crime only carried out by individuals working alone. It is a crime often carried out by organised crime groups who have realised the potential the internet has for them to take advantage and exploit individuals for their criminal gains. Strangers meeting each other online, friend requests through Facebook, comments on Instagram pages. A relationship is started with the perpetrator being flattering and attentive before requests for photos gradually build up to requests for those photos to be sexually explicit.
In some cases the perpetrator will claim to be from a model agency, or a celebrity photographer, anything to get the victim to believe in them or think they have met someone exciting. Where the victim is male, pictures and video clips of an attractive female in various states of undress are often used to encourage that person to share their own images. As soon as the pictures have been received the tone switches from friendly and encouraging to blunt and menacing, demanding money and threatening the release of the images. Webcam blackmail runs on the same idea as static images but using live webcam footage of a victim performing sexual acts. This is recorded by the perpetrator, according to the National Crime Agency, and then used in a blackmail scam.
There have been tragic cases where the victims targeted have felt so helpless and terrified of the threats being made to share their personal images they have taken their own lives as a result.
On 2 June 2015, 17-year-old Ronan Hughes took his mother aside and told her he was being blackmailed online at their home in Tyrone, Ireland. He had shared an image of himself with an individual online who was now demanding £3000 to not publicly post the image to his friends, the Irish Times reports. Ronan did the right thing in telling his parents what was happening. They went to the local police for help and were informed there was little they could do about the scam.
Three days later on 5 June 2015, Ronan received a message from one of his friends saying they had been sent images relating to him but had not opened the link. Ronan told his father, distressed at the prospect of his friends seeing these images. His father left his job as soon as his son made contact but by the time he reached his home, his 17-year-old son had committed suicide.
Europol have released a video with the Irish Garda Siochana to raise awareness of online sexual coercion under their ‘Say No’ campaign. The campaign has been created specifically to educate teenagers using the internet at their home and on their mobiles of the dangers of online communication and sharing images.
“It is difficult for parents to understand why their child would share explicit sexual images online, but the reality is that it happens. When it involves a coerced or a requested image and an element of blackmailing or exploitation, you’re in a very dangerous area, and the consequences are significant,” Detective Superintendent Declan Daly told the Irish Times.
The current known cases of sextortion and the statistics reported may just be the tip of the iceberg as to how common and widespread these scams are. Many feel too embarrassed and ashamed to go to the police and admit what has happened feeling they will be blamed for sharing the images now being used against them.
The National Crime Agency provides guidelines on what to do if you are a victim of sextortion with the clear underlying message being not to pay the perpetrators and to immediately report them to police. Through exposure and understanding of how sextortion operates, it is hoped that both teenagers and adults can recognize the risk of these scams and save themselves from falling victim to the merciless criminals carrying them out.