There are a range of risks that children and adults can encounter online. One risk that has shown a dramatic increase in cases in recent years is that of sextortion, cybercriminals threatening to release sexual or intimate images of a user unless they pay the criminal money or perform another act.
While this behaviour is largely committed by organised criminal gangs, there is also the potential for young people themselves to be drawn into committing this type of offence against others. In 2022, The University of East London found that 1 in 13 European youth aged 16 to 19 had engaged in sextortion online.
This deep dive will provide further information on the nature of sextortion, as well as practical advice that you can share with older students who may be targeted by this criminal activity. Details of how to get further help and support are also included.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion (also known as ‘Financially Motivated Sexual Extortion’) can refer to a variety of online criminal offences. The most common type is financial blackmail; someone threatening to share sexual images of you publicly online unless you pay them. Commonly, this happens when a user has sent their sexual images to the offender. This blackmail can also occur if a criminal has hacked into an account to steal this intimate content or has used technology (such as deep fakes) to create this sexual content.
While financial blackmail is the most common form, a criminal could seek to use sexual images to gain access to something else, such as personal data, or to coerce a victim into doing something they don’t want to do. For example, in image sextortion, the purpose of the extortion is to obtain indecent images of an individual.
In 2020, Europol suggested that the term sextortion should not be used with regards to youth, as it does not accurately convey “that the act in question involves the sexual abuse and exploitation of a child, with extremely serious consequences for the victim”. They suggest that a more accurate expression would be online sexual coercion and extortion of children.
Who is affected by it?
While sextortion is a crime that can target anyone of any age, law enforcement agencies and helplines have identified young people aged 15 to 17 and adults aged 18 to 30 are at greater risk.
Statistics from the FBI in 2022 revealed that law enforcement agencies received over 7000 reports of online sextortion against over 3000 victims in the USA, predominantly boys.
The Revenge Porn Helpline, based in the UK and dealing with cases of intimate image abuse, found that sextortion was the most reported type of issue to the helpline in 2022. Their annual report also suggests that the number of men contacting the helpline has risen each year, suggesting that men are increasingly targeted by this crime. This echoes the experiences of the Insafe network of helplines, which has found that boys and men are targeted by sextortion more frequently than women and girls.
How can you spot sextortion?
Offenders will usually adopt a different identity online (often as a girl/woman to target boys or men) and send many friend requests quickly to large groups to get someone to engage with them.
It can be difficult to spot when someone online is attempting to exploit you, but there are some common characteristics of sextortion that you can encourage your students to look out for:
- Things move too quickly – A person might try to develop a relationship very quickly, introduce sexual language or themes, and ask for or send sexual images to encourage their target to send intimate images back.
- Constant pressure – They may pressure a target to send intimate images by asking repeatedly or making other requests that make someone uncomfortable.
- They make false claims – Some offenders put pressure on their targets by claiming they already have intimate images of them, that they have already hacked a user’s account or that they have already obtained other sensitive information.
An example of a scam email making false claims to commit sextortion.
Is sextortion against the law?
In a word, yes.
There are likely laws in your country that make this form of blackmail a criminal offence. In circumstances where children under 18 have been coerced into creating and sending sexual images, there are laws in your country which also make these acts criminal offences.
Apart from breaking the law, these crimes can also threaten the mental well-being and safety of people who are targeted and exploited.
What advice can I give to young people about sextortion?
This can be a challenging issue to discuss with young people, but it is important to equip them with knowledge and advice so they can take steps to prevent themselves and others from becoming a victim of this crime.
Here are some useful things to share and discuss with your students to minimise the risks:
- Look out for and report suspicious behaviour – Encourage your students to look out for strange behaviour, particularly if a new online contact starts making requests or tries to move the relationship on too quickly. Encourage them to look out for other users online – it’s difficult for you to spot when you are being exploited or groomed, but it’s easier to see when it might be happening to someone else.
- Protect their personal data and accounts – Remind young people to think carefully about the personal details they share online on their profiles and with other users. Exploring privacy settings on their accounts can help them ensure they are protecting key personal data. Encourage them to create strong passwords for all accounts, and to use different passwords for each one. A password manager is the most effective way to manage these, as it doesn’t require them to remember lots of passwords!
- Get into good cyber hygiene habits – While hacking claims made by offenders are often false, it is always a good idea for young people to regularly maintain their devices and accounts to ensure good security. This includes ensuring all devices and operating systems are updated whenever a new update becomes available, updating apps/games regularly, using anti-virus and anti-malware solutions, and running regular scans of devices to ensure they are free of malware.
- Consider trust – Remind students to think carefully about who they are interacting with and to remember that other online users may not be who they claim to be. This becomes especially important if they ask you to do something, such as sharing personal details, photos, or videos. They should always assume that the person they are chatting to can take screenshots or video captures of anything displayed to them.
While it is distressing to think that your students might be affected by this criminal activity, these tips are also useful for them to know if sextortion does happen to them:
- It’s not their fault – Anyone who falls victim to sextortion may feel very upset and blame themselves. Remind students that it is never their fault if this happens to them – deception or trickery by a criminal is never acceptable. This also applies to if they have freely shared an image with a criminal or gave into pressure – misuse of their image to blackmail them is never okay.
- Don’t pay – In sextortion, the motive is to get money. Paying an offender to stop them from sharing an image doesn’t guarantee they won’t share it anyway, and it can encourage them to ask for more money in the future to buy their continued silence. It may also embolden criminals to target other people because they know it works.
- Stop communicating – Explain to students that stopping the chat is the best way to prevent further attempts to exploit them, and to reduce the pressure placed on them.
- Save the evidence – Encourage students to save as much evidence as they can, if possible. This includes saving all the messages and images taking screenshots of other details (such as the offender’s profile) and any other contact details (usernames, email addresses, phone numbers) and financial details (such as bank account numbers or cryptocurrency links). If images have been shared online, taking details of the URLs/links to these is also important.
- Report it – Encourage students to always report the offence to the website or social media platform (if possible) but also to inform local law enforcement immediately.
- Tell someone – Remind students that if this happens to them, it is not their fault; they are the victim of a crime. The best way to respond to this crime is to get support from others who can help. This could be a parent/carer or other trusted adult. Boys and young men are particularly worried about seeking help if this happens to them out of shame or embarrassment. Remind your students that you are there to support them, not to judge them when they need help.
- Removing content – Reassure your students that there are ways to get their sexual images removed online. If they are under 18 years of age, then these images are likely to be child sexual abuse material (CSAM), which is illegal and will also violate the terms of service of online platforms (such as social media), so they can be reported and removed. There are also other ways to get sexual content removed, as detailed in the following section.
Where can I get help and support?
The following can provide advice and support with regards to sextortion cases. You should also contact local law enforcement to report sextortion as a crime.
- Insafe and INHOPE networks – Details of the network of Safer Internet Centres across Europe, providing information, advice and support through helplines and hotlines. The INHOPE network deals with the reporting of CSAM.
- StopNCII – This free tool is designed to support victims (aged 18+) of Non-Consensual Intimate Image (NCII) abuse. It allows a victim to create a ‘digital fingerprint’ of their sexual image – these details are shared with participating online platforms (such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Pornhub) and then detect and remove the image.
- Revenge Porn Helpline – Based in the UK, this helpline provides support for victims (aged 18+) of Non-Consensual Intimate Image (NCII) abuse. Although the helpline can only deal with cases affecting UK-based victims, they have a useful page detailing other agencies around the world who provide support.
Before you go, take a few minutes to reflect on the learning in this module.
One of the best ways to deal with any issues that arise online is to plan how to manage it.
Using the above information, create a checklist or action plan of five to seven key steps you would take if one of your students told you they had become a victim of online sextortion.
Some key points to consider in your action plan:
- How will you support the young person in the short/medium/long term?
- Who will you tell/report this to?
- Are there child protection procedures in your school that you need to follow?
- Are there any specific circumstances to consider? (e.g. is the young person vulnerable, do they have family support?)
- How might education help protect and support your other students?