It seems like every few days there is a new story involving teenaged girls being tricked or blackmailed into sending compromising pictures of themselves to their tormenters. For the last few years, the FBI has been warning that this crime – “Sextortion” – is on the rise.
Ask most people about this term, and you will get a quizzical look. What is Sextortion, and how can you help prevent it? There are two types of behaviors that are used in this crime:
With this tactic, the criminals take advantage of the relative anonymity of the Internet to trick victims into trusting them and revealing very personal details or sending revealing images. The criminals then use these as leverage to force their victims into sending more compromising pictures.
This tactic involves targeting the victim with malware that stealthily turns on the victim’s webcam. In this case the victim herself unwittingly provides revealing images that the criminal can use for blackmail to get the victim to provide yet more compromising pictures.
Sextortion is a fairly new crime, so there are not yet statistics for exactly how prevalent it is. However, consider just one case of a 25 year-old male who was recently indicted by a federal grand jury for sexual exploitation of a minor and receipt and distribution of child pornography. According to court documents, for the past eight years this guy used Facebook, Kik Messenger, and Text Me!, as well as Yahoo! and Dropbox accounts “to communicate with dozens of minor females throughout the United States while posing as a minor female.” After establishing communication with the girls, some as young as 13, he would “threaten to reveal sexually explicit images of their friends unless the victim sent to him images of themselves nude or engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” One girl was scammed into uploading more than 660 sexually explicit images of herself to a Dropbox account controlled by this guy.
While this can happen to people of any age or gender – and everyone can and should protect him or herself – teen girls presently comprise the majority of victims. The perpetrators too can be of any age or gender, but the way you handle it should be the same.
Here are a few tips for how we can protect ourselves and help protect our loved ones:
- Cover webcams
The simplest and cheapest thing you can do is to put a removable sticker or opaque tape over your webcam when you are not using it. It is also a good idea to unplug stand-alone webcams when they are not in use. You may wish to turn computers off or close laptops when you are not using them.
- Supervise children’s computer or device use
Another tip that costs absolutely nothing but has a huge impact is to instruct kids to keep computers and tablets in common rooms where a responsible adult is present. Devices like smartphones are trickier, as kids carry these with them wherever they go. Ideally, you would teach children at an early when it is appropriate to send photographs. But as any parents of teenagers can tell you, this is an age where the brain is not yet fully capable of planning for future consequences or impulse control. Disabling the camera within the phone’s operating system or using parental control software may be helpful.
- Layered security
All those things that security wonks regularly tell you to do apply here too: Use strong passwords. Verify with senders before opening unexpected attachments. Update your software promptly. Use a firewall and anti-malware software. Keep in mind that some malware attacks are targeted, meaning criminals may customize their tools so that more simplistic anti-malware programs do not detect them, and victims are more apt to take the bait. Do not assume technology alone will protect you; you must also do your part to protect yourself.
- Talk with your kids
As with protecting kids from online predators, it is important to keep an open line of communication with kids. Let your children know they can come to you without fear of reprisal, and express a genuine interest in their online activities. The targets of these crimes are victims, no matter what they did or how they responded to the threat.
- Go to police, not to schools
In some cases the person committing sextortion is a teenager too. But this is a crime, regardless of the age of the perpetrator. In addition to being a type of extortion, that crime can also be prosecuted as possession of child pornography if the victim is a child, and it may also be considered revenge porn in some jurisdictions if the victim is an adult. Report any such activities to your local law enforcement first, not the child’s school. It is not the job of educators or administrators to handle crime; possessing or exchanging pictures of a person (especially a minor) without their consent is a very serious matter that should be handled by police.
It is important to note that sextortion is not strictly speaking a sexual crime; it is about exerting power over victims. Teens with a healthy sense of self-worth and a good support system are less likely to submit to extortion demands. If you can be a source of support and validation for your children, they are more likely to report crimes before damage has been done.
Author Lysa Myers, ESET