25% of sextortion survivors are 13 year-old girls or younger. Learn more about this ever increasing threat.

Within the unexplored and still very unregulated world wide web, digital abuses are becoming harder to escape. They take an array of shapes and forms and pose a danger to the digital privacy of each and every one of us. A cybercrime that has been prevalent in recent years is the crime of sextortion. This article will examine the crime of sextortion, provide some facts and statistics, and finally present several prevention mechanisms.

In its most simplistic form, ‘sextortion’ is blackmail. It involves threatening to publish sexual information or videos about someone for extorsion purposes. Perpetrators attempt to harass, embarrass, and control victims. According to the UK Council for Internet Safety, sextortion is defined as “threats to expose sexual images in order to make a person do something or for other reasons, such as revenge or humiliation. This may happen after a relationship breakup where an ex-partner threatens to share private images to force a reconciliation/humiliate their ex-partner, or where a perpetrator and victim have met online and a sexual image from the victim is used to demand more images/contact”[1]. It is therefore a cyberthreat whereby the perpetrator, possessing or appearing to possess compromising images or videos of the victim given with or without consent, exploits the victim to its advantage by threatening them to publish their intimate content online or share it with the victim’s surroundings. Sextortion can be committed individually or collectively, namely by organised criminal gangs, and is committed against anyone exposed to the digital space, including dating apps, social media, webcams, and pornography sites, amongst others [2]. However, victims of sextortion are fore and foremost women[3].

Albeit the development of the debate on digital privacy, sextortion, and in general cybercrimes, are a growing concern in most parts of the world, disproportionally affecting women, minors and marginalized communities. It is easy to fall prey to this type of digital rights violation since it is likely that victims will succumb to the will of the perpetrator in order to avoid embarrassing repercussions of having their private images and videos shared with relatives, friends, or the general public.

The importance of our reputation social media and reliance on online messaging and dating apps comes with a more casual exchange of explicit or sensitive content, either by choice, unawareness, or exploitation and deceit. This often leads to the crimes remaining unreported due to its stigmatised nature.

Surveys have found that 45% of perpetrators carried out the threats. 60% of sextortion survivors knew the perpetrators in person before the threats occurred, whilst 40% met the perpetrators online [4]. A fourth of all reported survivors sought medical or mental health professionals, but over a third of them remained silent. Most cases involve women under the age of 18, and an astonishing 25% were 13 years old or younger when threatened [5].

In July 2018, the FBI received 13,000 more sextortion complaints than it had in the previous month. In the UK, more than 1,300 cases were reported in 2017, three times the number in 2015, and the country has experienced a spike in male suicides related to sextortion cases [6].

The exponential rise of cybercrime calls for an even faster response through the development of cybersecurity and cyber rights. Whilst legislation catches up with cyberthreats, it is crucial to educate ourselves to the risks of digital abuse. Sextortion can have a devastating impact on victims and causes serious mental and psychological harm. A few ways of preventing falling victim to sextortion are listed below:
– Be careful with email attachments: do not open email attachments from people you do not know and check the validity of the email address.
– Never send sexual content to online strangers.
– Use strong passwords: avoid using the same password for all accounts and consider using a password manager.
– Get a VPN: these redirect your traffic through an encrypted tunnel to make your browsing private and your sensitive information secure [7].
– Store your intimate contents on a safe USB device and don’t keep them on your phone and personal computer.

What to do if someone is threatening to publish your sensitive sexual content online:
– Stop all communication;
– Do not succumb to the perpetrator’s demands;
– Report and block the offending party;
– Share the evidence by keeping a record of all conversations that took place with the perpetrator, via screenshots;
– Report sextortion to the authorities [8].

As Cyber Rights Organization, we condemn cyber rights violations and promote digital privacy, by assisting victims of cybercrimes in line with the 2030 UN Agenda. We respond promptly to their difficulties through investigation, research, monitoring, and case-by-case assessments to move closer to a safer online world ruled by cyber peace. Learn more about our services here: https://cyberights.org/what-we-do/

Written by Olga Ruiz Pilato

[1] Davidson et al., 2019. “Adult Online Harms Report” < https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/811450/Adult_Online_Harms_Report_2019.pdf> accessed December 14, 2022

[2] Get Safe Online, ‘Growing up and the internet: sexting, exploitation and other dangers’ <https://www.getsafeonline.org/personal/blog-item/growing-up-and-the-internet-sexting-exploitation-and-other-dangers/> accessed December 12, 2022.

[3] European Women’s Lobby, 2018 <https://womenlobby.org/ > accessed December 12, 2002.

[4] Aimee O’Driscoll, ‘What is Sextortion (with examples)’ <https://www.comparitech.com/blog/information-security/what-is-sextortion-examples/> accessed December 12, 2022.

[5] THORN, ‘Sextortion Infographic 2018 Findings’ <https://www.thorn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Sextortion-Infographic-2018-Findings-UpdatedV3.pdf> accessed December 12, 2022.

[6] UK Metropolitan Police, ‘Sextortion’ <https://www.met.police.uk/advice/advice-and-information/sexual-offences/sextortion/?__cf_chl_tk=RcYH3nj0JR1Js2v_J7Ccru8dwq4kmuwUFJY6M0ghUic-1670850854-0-gaNycGzNCv0> accessed December 12, 2022.

[7] NordVPN, ‘What is sextortion – and how to keep yourself safe’ <https://nordvpn.com/blog/sextortion/> accessed December 12, 2022.

[8] Cybertip Canada, ‘Online Harms: Sextortion’ <https://www.cybertip.ca/en/online-harms/sextortion/> accessed December 12, 2022.

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