What Is Sextortion and How Can I Protect Myself?
More than 3,000 minors were victims of sextortion or online blackmail attempts in the United States in 2022. Sexual extortion, also known as "sextortion," is when a perpetrator coerces a person into sharing explicit images or videos online, only to then extort the person for more explicit material or money to keep the original content private.
Noting a global increase in sextortion attempts, federal officials are warning parents, guardians and caregivers of children, or vulnerable adults, to be aware of suspicious online activity.
Sextortionists often pretend to be young girls on gaming and social media sites to lure boys into sharing explicit material.
In January 2023, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in partnership with The Department of Homeland Security and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), issued a nationwide public safety alert notifying the public of an "explosion" in child and teen sextortion cases.
Young men are particularly at risk, federal officials say, because sextortionists often pretend to be young girls on gaming and social media sites to lure boys into sharing explicit material. After the material is exchanged, the sextortionist threatens to make the material public if the victim doesn't pay up.
Homeland Security describes sextortion as a "terrifying and dehumanizing violation" that feeds on victims' shame.
What are the sextortion red flags?
Knowing the telltale signs of suspicious online activity is one way to safeguard yourself against a potential sextortion scam. Federal officials say being familiar with these signs may be one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and those you love online.
Some of the strategies sextortion scammers use to manipulate victims include:
- Developing a false rapport with the victim
- Hacking accounts to steal sexual images
- Pretending to be younger or a member of the opposite sex
- Secretly recording explicit videos and messages during chats
- Threatening to commit suicide if the victim refuses to send images
- Using multiple identities to contact the victim
- Visiting public social media profiles to find out more about the victim, including accessing the victim's friend list and searching for other personal information that may harm the victim's reputation
If you become aware of any of these sextortion red flags, alert officials.
Crime and punishment
Sextortion is a serious crime in the U.S., although the punishment can vary by state.
The increased prevalence of sextortion has made numerous media headlines in recent years.
In South Carolina, a 17-year-old son of a state representative died by suicide following a sextortion attempt, according to media reports.
The teen is now the inspiration for the state's newest legislation, "Gavin's Law," which increases the punishment for each act of sextortion of a minor or an at-risk adult.
In February 2023, Boston University police warned everyone on campus to protect themselves from potential sextortion scams after two college students fell prey, paying money to scammers for protection.
That same month, the FBI and international law enforcement partners issued a joint warning about a "global financial sextortion crisis."
"Financial sextortion has a far wider impact than just our country and our kids. It is a global crisis that demands everyone's attention," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a recent news release.
In March, a former Minnesota middle school paraprofessional was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a sextortion scheme. For a period of five years, according to the Minnesota U.S. Attorney's Office, from 2016 to 2021, the man used his status as an online gaming forum administrator to groom minors to produce child pornography and engage in sexual activity with him, by promising minors in-game perks, privileges and other gifts.
Two years ago, Buster Hernandez was sentenced to 75 years in federal prison after he attempted to extort 375 victims and threatened to kill, kidnap and rape hundreds more. And authorities in Chicago warned that sextortion cases in the city quadrupled within the past year.
While the internet can be a vast ocean of information and inspiration, the World Wide Web can be a dangerous place for vulnerable populations—this doesn't have to be the case.
Last year, more than 7,000 sextortion tips were reported to Homeland Security, resulting in more than 3,000 confirmed victims. In fiscal year 2021, Homeland Security arrested 3,776 individuals for perpetrating crimes against children and rescued or identified 1,177 child victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, according to the agency. That same year, the FBI's IC3 received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints.
"Sexual exploitation of children is a despicable crime that may go unrecognized by friends and family of the victims. In this digital age, it is imperative that we stay informed of the deception and other tactics sexual predators use to harm our children," said Zachary A. Myers, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, in a news release. "Victims of sextortion may feel confused, embarrassed and as if there is no escape. I strongly urge parents and caregivers to engage with the children in their lives to discuss this crime and help law enforcement agencies prevent the abuse before it happens."
Avoid sex-based scams online
While the internet can be a vast ocean of information and inspiration, the World Wide Web can be a dangerous place for vulnerable populations. However, this doesn't have to be the case.
The Department of Homeland Security offers the following tips to stay safe online:
- Don't accept a friend request from anyone online you don't know in real life.
- Don't give any personal contact info (email or handles) to anyone you haven't met in real life.
- If someone you don't know asks for personal information, say no.
- Never share your passwords with anyone.
- Don't use easy-to-guess passwords, such as pet's names, birth dates or anything someone could guess from your social media profiles.
- Don't click on links in emails that come from people you don't know, as doing so could compromise your device.
- Teach your teens, at-risk adults and vulnerable seniors to report threats. Though they may be stressed or embarrassed, talk to them about online safety and encourage them to come forward if they receive a suspicious email.
- Be wary of the recording devices you bring into your home. Some low-security devices (such as baby monitors and nanny cams) are easy to exploit.
- Assume your webcam or recording device can be activated remotely. Never have your phone or other electronic recording devices pointed toward you while undressing or in a position you would not want to share with the world.
- Cover your webcam when you're not using it. If your webcam doesn't have a built-in cover, use a sticker or piece of tape to cover it.
If you or someone you know is the victim of sextortion, contact your local FBI field office, call 800-CALL-FBI, or contact the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov. You can also call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST or CyberTipline.org.