Sextortion is a form of online blackmail in which a perpetrator threatens to expose sexually compromising information, often after coercing someone into sending intimate images or videos – and it’s far more common than you think.
When you hear the word “scam” you probably picture an innocent grandma or grandpa unwittingly paying fake bills received by email, or sharing private information with a caller claiming to be from their bank or electricity company.
In reality, scamming happens to people of all ages (yes, including tech-savvy teens and young adults), and in all sorts of ways.
As Scams Awareness Week kicks off on November 27, South Australia Police is shining a light on sextortion.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion is a form of online blackmail in which a perpetrator threatens to expose sexually compromising information that they’ve coerced someone into sending them. Once obtained, the scammer threatens to send those images/videos to everyone on person’s contacts including work colleagues, family and friends.
Other variations of sextortion include:
- A scammer recording the victim during a live stream;
- The victim’s face being superimposed onto a body in an explicit image;
- The scammer claiming to have found intimate images or hacking your device or webcam to obtain images.
How does sextortion occur?
According to Cybercrime’s Sergeant David Mitchell, contact from the scammer is usually initiated through social media, where the scammer has access to your images and followers, making it easier for them to perpetrate the scam.
“Another less common method utilised is bulk email extortion, whereby emails are sent to a victim saying their computer has been compromised,” says Sergeant David Mitchell. “The scammer demands the victim pay them or they will release the webcam images/video or browsing history to friends or family.”
Who are the main victims of sextortion?
Males under 26 years old make up the overwhelming demographic of reporting victims. A large proportion of these (approximately 25 per cent) are males aged between 14 and 17.
However, anyone can be a victim of this form of online blackmail.
“You would appreciate that there would be so much more of this crime happening, but people are often too ashamed to come forward,” says Senior Constable First Class Lauren Degabriele, who currently works in South Australia Police’s Cybercrime Training and prevention area and has been a police officer for 19 years.
“What we are seeing predominantly are people pretending to be females online; they make up an account to pretend that they’re a female person, and then they target the victims,” she says.
How do scammers choose their targets?
Generally speaking, the more information you have available online, the more you have at risk, says Lauren. “People with public social media profiles and lots of photos of themselves with visible friends and contact lists make great targets for scammers.”
For that reason, her advice is to “make sure you lock down all your social media accounts” by way of privacy settings. Your private information – including photos – should only be accessible by people you know and trust.
Red flags to look out for
The signs of a perpetrator can be hard to pick, says Lauren, but there are some common behaviours to look out for:
- Unsolicited and fast-moving contact, often on social media or dating websites (“especially if someone comes to you and you haven’t sought them out,” says Lauren);
- Request to use a messaging platform other than the platform initially met on (“they do that so they’re not breaching terms and conditions of the platform”);
- Requests for explicit content – this often happens after the scammer has sent intimate photos of themselves (or someone they claim to be) first;
- Reluctance to video chat or meet in person (there’s no reason someone wouldn’t be able to use a webcam or talk face-to-face these days”);
- Threats, demands or requests for money;
- Pressure and manipulation – scammers will attempt to manipulate or coerce their victims into complying with their demands.
“I’ve seen some of these threats and they are really scary,” says Lauren. “They will sometimes send a screenshot of the message and photo they are about to send to everyone, and what they’re planning to say about them, and that adds pressure to the victim to make them pay up.”
How to protect yourself online
- Be cautious when communicating with unknown people online.
- Make sure all of your social media profile settings are private and hide contacts or personal information.
What to do in the event of falling victim
Don’t pay under any circumstances, says Lauren.
“There have been instances where people have paid, and then they are asked for more and threatened again; there’s a possibility it would never stop,” she says.
Speak to a trusted adult or friend, and report it to the police even if nothing has been paid to the scammer. The threat was still made.
“If a victim is caught up in something like this, it is so harmful psychologically, but there are a number of places they can go for support,” says Lauren. These include Lifeline, the eSafety Commissioner – which has powers to remove images from the internet – plus Victims of Crime South Australia.
And of course South Australia Police: “We’re always here to help, guide and support people if need be. Everyone deserves to feel safe on and offline.,” says Lauren.
Advice for parents and others
Lauren’s advice for parents is to “be open and honest with your children”.
“Talk to them about sextortion, specifically that it’s never the fault of the person being scammed, and tell them to please avoid sending photos of themselves online,” she says. This includes both explicit and non-explicit photos, which can be manipulated to become sexual and, in turn, a means of sextortion.
And for people who receive intimate images of others unsolicited, “support the person and delete the photo,” she says. “Never pass it on, which is a crime in itself.”
To make a report of sextortion to police, you can report it to a police station or online at cyber.gov.au/report.
If you or someone you know experiences online abuse, you can go to eSafety for help – Australia’s regulator for online safety – or visit the South Australia Police website for more information.
If you or someone you know needs support, contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or at lifeline.org.au.