Insafe insights on… sextortion

The “Insafe insights…” series draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations. Drawing on statistics and helpline case studies, this resource aims to outline the issue and some possible responses, while also pointing to sources of further information and support.

2020-10-13 BIK Team
Young woman taking a selfie

The Insafe network of awareness centres, helplines and youth panels, in partnership with INHOPE (the International Association of Internet Hotlines, dedicated to the removal of illegal online content), operate Safer Internet Centres (SICs) in Member States, Iceland, Norway, Russia and the United Kingdom in the drive to keep children and young people safe online. Through a range of services, SICs respond to the latest online issues, helping to promote the many opportunities the online world offers, while also addressing the challenges. And while Europe’s children and youth are the main benefactors of this work, the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) programme of activities also reaches out to, and collaborates with, a range of other stakeholders – parents and carers, teachers and educators, researchers, industry, civil society, decision makers and law enforcement.

The “Insafe insights…” series draws on the experience and expertise of the Insafe network to tackle some of the most topical issues encountered in its day-to-day operations. Drawing on statistics and helpline case studies, this resource aims to outline the issue and some possible responses, while also pointing to sources of further information and support.

Sextortion… a definition

Sextortion refers to the situation where someone is blackmailed and coerced to send indecent images or money to avoid indecent images of them being shared widely online. The perpetrator usually has an image or images of the individual already and uses these to either extort money or to gain access to further content.

Europol has suggested that the term sextortion should not be used 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. That said, the media seem to still favour the term sextortion and this can be broken down into two types:

  1. Image sextortion – where the purpose of the extortion is to obtain indecent images of an individual.
  2. Financial sextortion – where the purpose is to gain financially when a victim pays money to prevent images being shared more widely.

The Insafe helpline network introduced the category of sextortion at the beginning of 2018 following a marked rise in calls about this type of issue which could not be captured accurately with existing classifications. In order to try and ascertain the extent of the problem, a new category was therefore added. The definition used by the network is

Sextortion is a means of coercing cybercrime victims to perform sexual favours or to pay a hefty sum in exchange for the non-exposure of their explicit images, videos or conversations.

Experiences from the Insafe network

Since helplines began gathering data about sextortion specifically it has accounted for around 4 per cent of all calls that helplines are receiving. Discussions with industry have made clear that this is a growing problem often perpetrated by individuals who are located nowhere near the victim. In many cases, organised criminal gangs have been behind the threats with law enforcement agencies discovering significant operations where people were working in shifts in order to try and blackmail and coerce as many individuals as possible to part with money or images.

Helplines have been made aware of cases where individuals were coerced into sharing images believing that they were in a relationship with another person who had feelings for them. They hear stories from young people who explain that they shared explicit content only to be told immediately afterwards that the content had been captured and would be shared widely unless money or further images were shared.

Over recent years it seems that boys and men are targeted more frequently than girls and women.

A couple of websites/platforms tend to be mentioned quite regularly in sextortion cases. Many of the reports are coming from boys and young men who are using sites like www.chatroulette.com and www.omegle.com. They follow a similar pattern; the victim will start chatting with a girl on one of these sites and would then be persuaded to have webcam sex. A video is made of the boy masturbating on camera and is then shared back to the victim with the threat that the footage will be shared more extensively unless money is paid. The money transfers tend to be channelled through legitimate payment sites such as Western Union. Several victims have paid large amounts of money in the hope that the videos and images would not be shared more widely. The amounts have varied between anything from around 50 to 15,000 EUR. Western Union have an abuse help page which provides links to useful information.

Helplines have had discussions about the issue and have suggested that the following advice could be helpful:

  • Preserve and collect as much evidence as possible, such as screenshots showing the URL of the site being used.
  • Block and remove the person who is blackmailing from all social media sites and platforms.
  • Carry out a Google search to see if the image(s) are being share elsewhere.
  • Set up a Google alert on your name to receive a notification if content is uploaded in the future.
  • Check settings on social networks so that people who you don’t know are unable to chat with you.
  • Always report it if someone is targeting you in this way.

There are a number of scams associated with sextortion; one has been circulating for some time via email and has proved to be quite successful.

In this example, a user receives an anonymous email telling them that some malware has been installed onto their device and subsequently a video has been captured (through the webcam) of everything that the user was doing while the device was switched on. The email goes on to state that they have access to browsing history and some very compromising video footage or images. If the user is not prepared to pay a certain amount of money in bitcoin then the footage will be shared widely, bringing about embarrassment and humiliation. At this point, most people would recognise that this is a fake, and that no one has taken control of their webcam. However, the part of the scam which really does worry the victim is that the email will contain the user’s password; it will be their password or at least one that they recognise that they have used in the past, for example. The idea is that the user thinks that if the scammers have their password then the claims about the webcam and videos and images must also be true. Reports have shown that these emails can be sent to tens of thousands of victims with the scammers only needing a fairly low hit rate to be making money.

Advice from the police is that victims have done nothing wrong; they will be listened to and taken seriously – a Europol news article explains further.

Insafe helpline case studies

Insafe helplines frequently receive contacts regarding sextortion.

BLOCKQUOTE A teenage boy called the German helpline and explained that he met a really pretty girl online; they became friends and spent a lot of time online on a popular social networking site. They exchanged naked pictures. The girl then started threatening the boy saying that she wanted money or she would share the images. The boy was very frightened and said that he didn’t have any money and was worried about what would happen. He said he couldn’t tell his parents as it was so embarrassing, but that he needed help. The helpline response was to explain that this is not so unusual and that they had dealt with similar cases recently. They explained that the girl is breaking the law and told the boy not to pay any money. The counsellor advised the boy to save the evidence of the threats and requests for money and to say that he was going to the police. It was also made clear that he should report and block her. Legal information was also shared, and the boy was advised to try and find some adult help and support from someone that he could trust.

In a case from the Latvian helpline, a 17-year-old boy was contacted by a girl on Instagram. They chatted for a few weeks and then decided to take their relationship to the next level by exchanging erotic photos. After this, they decided to go even further and the boy sent the girl a video of him masturbating in front of the camera. At this point the girl said that she was going to share the video with all of his friends on social media, along with his family and others that she had found on his Facebook page. She said that she would reconsider if he agreed to send more videos and also persuade someone else of his age to get involved and make videos together.

BLOCKQUOTE The boy had a very strong sense of shame, betrayal, anger and helplessness, and it was important to ensure that he was in a more stable state. He was given instructions not to share any more images and to block the girl and report her. He was also told to save all of the threatening messages as evidence of what had happened. Finally, he was told that it was important that he went to the police and explained what had happened. He was also advised to seek psychological support to help recover from the strong negative emotions he had experienced after the incident.

A 12-year-old girl contacted the Bulgarian helpline and explained that a fake Instagram profile had been blackmailing her. An unknown man had told her that if she didn’t send nudes to him, he would contact her mother and say that she had been sending nudes to random people. The girl was very distressed by this and needed support.

BLOCKQUOTE The counsellor advised the girl to report the case to the Safer Internet Centre’s hotline and also to Instagram. She had already blocked the profile and wanted to know if the man might be able to photoshop her images and share them on social media. The counsellor acknowledged that this could happen but explained what to do and how to report this to the hotline. The girl was scared about telling her parents and the counsellor explained that she could get in touch again if she needed any additional support.

Insafe resources

Safer Internet Centres have developed various educational resources and awareness-raising videos aimed at helping teachers, parents and carers, and children and young people, to discover the online world safely. A selection of resources touching on issues relating to sextortion are detailed below:

Many more resources are available from the Better Internet for Kids (BIK) resource gallery, covering a whole range of online safety issues in a variety of languages.

Further information and advice

For further information and advice, please contact your national Safer Internet Centre (SIC).

To keep up to date with safer and better internet issues more generally, visit this website often, subscribe to the quarterly BIK bulletin, or check out the Insafe Facebook and Insafe Twitter profiles.

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