Sextortion, or sexual extortion, occurs when an online actor threatens to release a victim’s intimate photos or videos for financial gain. Sextortion is a form of extortion and can also be called “blackmailing” or “catfishing.” In sextortion, the blackmailer is called the sextortionist. While a sextortionist can be a person who knows the victim, it is more typical for this person to be an anonymous online actor.
A sextortionist typically befriends a victim on a social media site or dating app. Often, a sextortionist will often pretend to be a model or a cammer by using another person’s photos. Once a sextortionist befriends a victim, he or she begins engaging in friendly small talk with the victim, asking personal questions about the victim’s family, career, contact information, and other social media accounts. After the sextortionist builds up a repertoire of information, he or she will threaten to release private and intimate photos or videos of the victim to the victim’s family and employer if the victim does not send the sextortionist a large monetary payment. While some sextortionists do have private photos or videos of the victim, many bluff the victim.
Sextortionists often search for victims on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram or dating applications like Bumble, Tinder, and Grindr.
Common Examples of Sextortion
Sextortion typically looks like one of the following situations:
- A victim sends a nude photo to a person they meet on a dating app like Tinder or Grindr and that person threatens to release the photo if the victim does not pay them money.
- A victim video chats with a person they met on Facebook in an intimate state. The person they met on Facebook claims their webcam is broken
- A sextortionist hacks a victim’s webcam while they are on a pornography site and records them.
- A sextortionist hacks a victim’s cloud-based storage system, app like Snapchat, or social account and threatens to release intimate content.
- A person who has or had a close intimate relationship with a victim threatens to release their private content. (Note that when a partner releases private content, this is also considered revenge porn. The added aspect of blackmail makes revenge porn a form of sextortion)
Sextortionists are master manipulators who engage in a wide variety of tactics aimed at conning victims into sending them money. Typically, a sextortionist will threaten the victim; however, sextortionists can also play into a victim’s pity by claiming that he or she needs assistance paying for a family member’s hospital bills.
A sextortionist can sometimes be traced; however, this is not necessarily helpful if the attacker is operating his or her extortion scheme overseas.
What do I do If I am Being Blackmailed by a Sextortionist on the Internet?
1. Stop talking to the person extorting you
A sextortionist will tell you anything they can to elicit a strong emotional response. Sextortionists specifically target victims who respond quickly to their threats. The best thing a victim of sextortion can do is cease communication with the sextortionist. This can be extremely distressing and difficult for a victim to do when the sextortionist knows personal details about the victim’s family, career, and life. A victim should keep in mind that heeding to a sextortionists demands will not prevent him or her from publishing private content to the Internet.
3. Preserve all evidence
Since sextortion is based on the threat of releasing intimate content, a victim’s first inclination is often to delete all evidence related to the threats. A victim should NOT delete these conversations, as they are valuable data trails that can help an attorney trace and identify your attacker. A victim should take screenshots of all conversations and social profiles related to a sextortionist, including information related to wire transfers.
3. Do not Send Money
Under no circumstance should a victim send a sextortionist money. Yielding to threats will lead to more monetary demands. It is extremely important that you not transfer money to the person threatening you.
4. Contact an Attorney Immediately
If you are being threatened, you should immediately contact an attorney. An attorney can potentially help a victim trace and identify the identity of their attacker. An attorney can also send a cease and desist letter demanding that the sextortionist stop his or her unlawful actions. If your private, intimate content is published to the Internet, an attorney can help you quickly remove the content to limit its spread.
How Can I Protect Myself from Becoming a Victim of Sextortion?
While identifying sextortionists on the internet can be tricky, there are things you can do to protect yourself.
1. Review social accounts before accepting friend requests from strangers
While sextortionists can be great at assimilating to the online world, there are several tell-tale signs that a person may be engaging in shady tactics. Often, a sextortionist’s social profile will contain photos that were stolen from other social accounts. Keep an eye out for profiles that:
- only contain a few photos
- contain photos of more than one person, but purport to be of the same person
- look like they are screenshots
- contain photos of a person who looks like an influencer
- don’t have a lot of friends or followers
- contain captions or messages with spelling errors or that seem to be in broken English
- have users who claim that they have a broken webcam
While profiles belonging to sextortionists sometimes have indications that they are fake, this is not always the case. The only way to fully protect yourself is to not accept requests from people you don’t know.
2. Don’t share personal Information with people you just met online
Sextortionists are extremely talented at pulling personal information out of a person in an online conversation. Typically, a sextortionist will ask information about a person’s phone number, career, place of residence, and other social profiles. Once a sextortionist has this information, they gain leverage because they can threaten to notify these groups of people about your private content.
3. Don’t trust people you meet online
You don’t know who someone is until you meet them in person. While this can be difficult in the world of modern dating, a catfish can be busted through a simple video chat. When a sextortionist agrees to video chat, they will typically claim that their camera is broken. This is a tell-tale sign that you are dealing with someone who is hiding their identity. It is best to keep private details and photos away from new people you meet online.
4. If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, stop and think before you react
Remember, sextortionists prey on people who react with quick emotions. If an online interaction starts to get uncomfortable, it is best to step away from the situation to reflect before responding. A sextortionist will say everything they can to get you to respond, even if the conversation doesn’t make sense in retrospect.
5. Put a block on your webcam
Online schemes like hacking are on the rise, especially when so many people work remotely. An easy way you can protect yourself is by putting a block on your webcam. Webcam blockers are cheap and easy to use and can be found on websites like Amazon. If you don’t have a webcam block, a sticky note will work.
6. Remember that all online activities can be monitored- be thoughtful
Everything you do on the internet or on an app can be recorded or hacked. Before sending content to another person, consider whether you would be ok with that content becoming public. This includes video chats, direct messages, and even private snapchat albums. Nothing is private on the internet.