Sextortion Scams are On the Rise: What You Need to Know
Sextortion scams are on the rise and increasing exponentially. And they target everyone at any age. But that doesn’t mean everyone is equally at risk. The biggest sextortion targets right now are younger adults and teenagers. Here’s what you need to know about this crime and what you can do about it.
What Is Sextortion?
The word “sextortion” is a combination of the words “sex” and “extortion.” Sextortion scams use sexual images of you to extort you. The sextortionist blackmails you by threatening to release explicit images of you if you don’t do what they want. Most often, they want you to send them money or more explicit images.
Sextortion scams are similar to revenge content or “revenge porn,” but not the same. Revenge content puts your explicit images online specifically to hurt you, and it’s usually done by someone you know, often a former romantic partner. Sextortion scams, on the other hand, threaten to put your images online in order to blackmail or coerce you into doing something. Sextortion can be done by someone you know, or it can be done by a complete stranger.
How Sextortion Scams Work
Sextortion can happen on any platform with a messaging function – social media, dating apps, gaming services, messaging apps, and more. The sextortionist somehow obtains explicit images of you. If they are a former romantic partner, they may use ones that you sent them or they took while you were in the relationship. If they are a stranger, they may catfish you and convince you to send the pictures.
Once they have those compromising pictures, they demand something to keep them private. Catfishers often find and go through your social media accounts and threaten to send the photos to specific people. In three out of four cases, the goal of sextortion scams is to get you to send them money. But that’s not always the case. When the sextortionist is a former romantic partner, they may want you to keep in contact or even get back together with them. And if the victim is a child, the predator may want additional explicit images.
The “Hacker” Version
In this type of sextortion scam, someone contacts you claiming to have hacked your device. Often they send you one of your passwords as “proof.” They claim they have accessed your webcam, camera, or photos and have obtained explicit images or videos of you. If you don’t pay them, they will send the photos or videos to people you know and embarrass you.
The good news is that in this version, it’s very unlikely that the person contacting you actually has any of your photos. It’s usually a low-tech scam where the scammer bought your password from a data breach and never did any hacking. They send emails or messages making threats with no basis in reality, and they hope to make you afraid and ashamed so you pay without thinking.
Who Sextortion Targets
Like most scams, sextortion scams target everyone. However, younger people are especially at risk. In 2021, most victims were between 20 and 39 years old according to the FBI. Adults older than 39 and senior adults are targets, but younger people are this scam’s primary demographic.
Since 2021, though, the data has shifted a bit. Now, the biggest demographic that sextortion scams are targeting is children and teens, especially teenage boys. Teens are uniquely vulnerable to these scams, for a few reasons. One is that kids tend to socialize online. They regularly connect with strangers on the internet through shared interests, games, and mutual friends. Often, they don’t consider strangers they met this way to be strangers.
Another major risk factor for teens is the sexual aspect of sextortion. There is a lot of shame and embarrassment around sexual topics, especially for teenagers. A teen who doesn’t have anywhere to share their sex-related concerns without being dismissed, getting in trouble, or being shamed won’t tell anyone if they get caught in a sextortion scam, letting the financial and emotional damage continue.
What To Do If You’re a Victim
If you get caught in a sextortion scam, there are a few things you can do. The first step is to say no and stop all communication with that person. Even though they might try to convince you that just doing what they want will make it all better, complying rarely helps or stops the threats. And talking to them won’t make it any better, either. If they try to make you feel bad or threaten you, remember that they’re the ones doing something wrong, not you.
Report the sextortionist to the app or platform they contacted you on. Block them, as well, but don’t delete your profile or any messages – they can be evidence in an investigation. Report the incident with as much detail as you can to the FBI at ic3.gov. If a minor is involved, also report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline at report.cybertip.org.
Teens should talk to someone they trust – a parent, teacher, counselor, coach, religious leader, or another trusted adult – and ask for help. And no matter your age, sextortion scams can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and self-blame. Remember that it’s not your fault. Sextortion is a crime, and being hurt by a crime is never the victim’s fault. Talking to a therapist or other professional may help you cope with those feelings.
One of the biggest concerns of sextortion scam victims is if the sextortionist will follow through. And the answer is, sometimes they do. About 45% of sextortionists do follow through and share your explicit images if you don’t cooperate. For most victims, this is a terrifying possibility.
If it does happen, though, there are resources to help. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a tool called “Is Your Explicit Content Out There?” that can help you get explicit images of minors off the internet. Without My Consent’s Something Can Be Done! guide and the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative Safety Guide can also help get your explicit photos removed no matter your age. StopSextortion.com also has a variety of resources about dealing with all aspects of sextortion scams.
Protecting Your Child from Sextortion
If you’re a parent, it’s important to know that sextortion scams are targeting your kids. Teens are this scam’s biggest target, but even if your child is younger, they are still at risk. They’re even more at risk if they don’t know the threat is out there.
Talking to your child about online dangers and sex are is never easy or comfortable conversations. But it’s essential. Even if you think your child would know better or would never send those kinds of photos, remember that sextortionists are often adults who are master manipulators. Your child may know better, but a manipulative adult might convince them to do it anyway.
Explain the dangers of sextortion scams and what could happen in an age-appropriate way. And also let them know that they can talk to you about anything, no matter how awkward, uncomfortable, or scary. It’s important for your kids to have a safe space to talk about things that are threatening without fear of being punished or shamed. For kids who don’t feel safe talking to anyone about it, the consequences can be devastating.
If your child does come to you to talk about something confusing, scary, or threatening, it’s important to not be another source of fear. Don’t yell, punish, or shame them. Instead, talk it through and help them find answers and solutions. If your teen knows they can go to you with concerns and you won’t be angry or punish them for it, they are much more likely to reach out if they get caught in a sextortion scam.
Protecting Yourself from Sextortion
The best way to avoid sextortion scams is to never take or send explicit photos of yourself. However, this may not be an option for everyone. If you’ve already sent explicit images, or if you’re an adult who finds it important to be able to send those types of photos to your romantic partners, this may not be helpful advice.
The second-best thing you can do is be very careful online. If someone messages you out of the blue, be suspicious. Don’t talk to people online if you can’t verify who they are. And never send explicit images to anyone you haven’t met in real life. It’s not uncommon for romance scams and catfishing to turn into sextortion scams – if they haven’t seen your face in real life, they don’t need to see what’s under your clothes.
Unfortunately, not all types of sextortion can be avoided. You can’t prevent someone you trusted from betraying that trust. In some cases, all you can do is remember that sextortion is not your fault, it’s the fault of the person who chose to blackmail and extort you. Anyone can be a victim. Sextortion can make you feel guilty, ashamed, or like it’s your fault, but it’s not. Report it and get help.
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