Sextortion: The New Stranger Danger

Sextortion isn’t new. In fact, the phrase was coined in the 1950s when a criminal suspect attempted to coerce a witness to change their testimony by using their sexual history against them. Since then, this act of blackmailing has evolved and in our digital age, the threat of public shaming is very real.

22 July 2018

SEXTORTION EXPLAINED

Sextortion – a combination of the words Sexual Extortion – is a form of sexual exploitation to force victims to either perform sexual acts or pay money to the exploiter to ensure that embarrassing or demeaning explicit content of the victim isn’t made public. In most cases, sextortion happens on social platforms. According to a recent study (the first of its kind) by THORN and the University of New Hampshire, about 60% of surveyed sextortion victims knew their exploiter well. However, incidents of strangers exploiting unsuspecting victims are on the increase.

A STRANGER CAN SEXPLOIT ME?

Yes, and the process is surprisingly simple. The majority of victims are men between the ages of 20 and 40, who are approached via messaging apps (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or dating sites) by a seemingly beautiful woman. The exploiter builds up an online relationship with the victim, winning their trust in a matter of days. Soon, the scamster requests the victim to send sexually explicit images of themselves and, in many cases, the victim agrees. Once the explicit content has been sent, these con men quickly change their tune, and the victim quickly realises they’ve been duped. The “woman” the victim has been chatting to turns out to be a man. This is when things get nasty, and the exploiter blackmails the victim in order to keep the explicit content private.

SEXTORTION GETS HIGH-TECH

Sadly, sextortionists are becoming more creative. In recent years, there has been an increase in cases where the victim has never met or even spoken to their exploiter prior to the blackmailing incident. Exploiters now simply superimpose an image of an unsuspecting victim onto a porn image or video and then proceed to blackmail the victim with this often well-produced fake image. With people sharing images freely on various social media platforms, gaining access to a photo of someone’s face and/or body is a breeze. Local security specialist Mike Bolhuis, says he’s currently dealing with at least 40 cases in South Africa alone in which this tactic has been used, but the unreported number is expected to be much higher.

In the days since we started advertising the broadcast of this story, we have not stopped receiving submissions from viewers detailing their own painful sextortion experiences.

SO, HOW DO I PROTECT MYSELF?

By keeping these basic tips in mind, you could substantially limit your chances of becoming a victim of sextortion.

  • If you wouldn’t publish an image for the public to see, then rather don’t share it with anyone at all.
  • It’s best not to send nude images of yourself at all. But if you feel comfortable enough to do so, don’t include your face or any other identifiable elements (such as tattoos and birthmarks) in the image.
  • If you’re communicating with someone you’ve just met online, do your homework. A simple online search of the person’s name could prevent unwanted drama.
  • Check the profile image of the person you’re chatting to – in many cases, exploiters steal images from other profiles to fool their victims. A simple reverse image search could clear things up.
  • Don’t share any personal information with an individual unless you are absolutely sure they are who they say they are. Even then, it’s best to only divulge sensitive information during a face-to-face meeting.
  • If the person you’re talking to seems overly aggressive in getting nude images from you, it’s best to end things there.
  • Unplug or disable your webcam when not in use. There have been a few reported incidents where exploiters have hacked into the victim’s webcam to capture intimate moments without them knowing.
  • Ensure your privacy settings on your social media accounts are set to the highest levels. This could prevent possible exploiters from gaining access to your personal images and videos. Most social platforms offer concise instructions on how to maximise your privacy online on their own sites.

I’M BEING BLACKMAILED. NOW WHAT?

Should you end up in a situation where a person is threatening to release sensitive images of you, it’s important to do the following:

  • Don’t delete anything. Take screengrabs of the conversations prior to the blackmailing incident and everything that’s being said and done afterwards. This could strengthen your case should you choose to take the legal route.
  • Don’t pay the extortionist. Paying the person won’t necessarily end things. In fact, in most cases, the extortionist comes back for more.  
  • Cease all communication with the extortionist immediately.
  • Report the matter to the police straight away.
  • Don’t delete your social media accounts. If possible, deactivate them as this preserves evidence for the police to follow up.
  • Report the incident and the exploiter to the relevant social media platform.
  • If an image or video of you has been leaked online, it’s better to be honest. Tell your family, friends and, if deemed necessary, your employer that you have been a victim of sextortion.
  • Seek legal advice. If you’re unable to afford a lawyer, you can contact Legal Aid for assistance.
  • Sextortion is a highly traumatic experience – whether your images have been published or not. It’s vital to seek counselling as soon as possible. Some possible options are below.

 

Sources: The University of New Hampshire | THORN |