What is sextortion? According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), sextortion is a crime where “someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.” Though that definition is pretty clear, like with most things involving digital devices, social media, and the internet, there are many complex layers involved.
Sextortion seems to target children and teens, more often than not. Experts believe this has to do with both their increased online presence and their inclination towards complying with a blackmailer in order to avoid getting in trouble.
“When a minor shares an explicit image of themselves with others, they could be criminally charged with creating and distributing child pornography. That creates a ripe environment for extortion,” Justin Patchin, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, tells Parentology. He explains that once your child has shared explicit images, all a predator would need to do is threaten to call the police if your child doesn’t agree to send more.
“That threat doesn’t exist among adults because sharing intimate images is not against the law when you are over 18,” he says.
What Is Email Sextortion?
Sextortion email campaigns are sent out to thousands of people. These misleading emails usually suggest that the sender knows much more about you or your child than they actually do. The writer threatens to release damning information — such as a pornographic videos, compromising photos, or embarrassing information to family, friends, coworkers, or on social media sites — if a ransom is not paid.
“They are increasingly prevalent, growing by nearly 250% in 2018 alone,” says Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, Director Media Psychology Research Center.
The good news, Rutlege says, is that “While there are some examples of real extortion involving theft of nude photos or videos, most are hoaxes that have no basis in reality.” In most cases, the only information they actually have is you or your teen’s email address. But they are still dangerous. If the sender cannot get your teen to pay a ransom, Rutledge says the next hope is that they will accidentally open malware included in the email. This can allow them access to the device’s webcam.
Predators Work to Gain Trust
Sometimes the predators aren’t bots or hoaxes. Sometimes they are real people who have targeted your teen and worked to gain their trust. After establishing a relationship, they will ask them to share an explicit photo or video.
“The teen often believes he/she is talking to someone of their same age [who] offers gifts, money, flattery, or other means of manipulation to get a person to say or share things that would be embarrassing,” Rutledge says. Once they have it, they use it to bribe their victim for additional damning information or photos.
What Parents Can Do
Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World* and the founder of Cyber Civics/Cyberwise, tells Parentology the best way to know what is going on with your teen online is to talk to them about it.
“The moment you hand your child a connected device is the time to start talking to your children about everything they do online,” she says. Graber adds that her class lessons about sextortion generally begin at an 8th-grade level, and she is usually surprised by how little the kids know about the topic.
This is especially troubling, because children and teens are more likely to fall victim to this sort of crime. Graber explains that this is because kids today are going online too young, before the parts of their brains that are responsible for ethical and critical thinking are fully developed (something she says happens between 12 – 13 years of age). This is why she believes that education in digital literacy is essential.
So, while you may think your child couldn’t get into this situation, that they’re too smart, or that they wouldn’t think of sending inappropriate photos or videos to someone, talk to them anyway. The conversation can’t hurt, and it could definitely protect them from future harm.
What Is Sextortion? — Sources
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Justin Patchin, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center
Dr. Pamela B. Rutledge, Director Media Psychology Research Center
Diana Graber, Author of Raising Humans in a Digital World and the founder of Cyber Civics and Cyberwise
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