Sextortion is an invasive form of extortion that occurs when a perpetrator threatens to release explicit images of you unless you send them a ransom—usually money, explicit images, or even sexual favors.
We recommend the following steps to deal with sextortion:
- Do not pay the sextortionist’s demanded ransom;
- Stop engaging with the perpetrator immediately;
- Document all communication with the sextortionist;
- Secure all social media profiles;
- Report the content to the relevant social media website;
- Reach out to an experienced internet attorney.
At Minc Law, we have proven success preventing the release of embarrassing images and videos, helping clients take control of the situation without drawing unwanted attention to the matter, identifying anonymous sextortionists, and working with local law enforcement to hold perpetrators liable for their actions.
In this article, we provide an in-depth overview of sextortion and what it includes. Then, we will explain how to protect yourself from (and respond to) internet sextortion.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion is a serious crime that involves a perpetrator threatening to publish private and explicit information or material about you (or share it with your friends and family) if you do not give in to their demands. These demands usually involve sexual images, money, or sexual favors.
A sextortionist’s goal is to make you afraid that your intimate photos or videos will be shared online for your friends, family members, and colleagues to see. Perpetrators use your fear against you to coerce you into paying them in exchange for not releasing your intimate photos, videos, or media.
Sextortion may also commonly be referred to as:
How Does Sextortion Differ From Other Forms of Extortion?
Sextortion falls under the broader umbrella of extortion. However, sextortion differs from most other forms of extortion because it often involves threats to reveal the victim’s personal, intimate images or videos if payment is not received.
However, some sextortion perpetrators utilize something as minor as a text message displaying your texts and phone number. This kind of information may be compromising to victims who are in a monogamous relationship.
Other extortion schemes, while equally horrifying for the victim, utilize different forms of threats and other embarrassing, non-sexual information.
Unfortunately, in today’s digital age, few are completely immune from sextortion scams in one form or another.
Webcam blackmail (sextortion) is becoming more and more common. According to the FBI’s latest 2019 Internet Crime Report, U.S. victims of extortion lost some $107.5 million to these crimes in 2019. At least 43,101 reported victims fell prey to an internet crime involving extortion in 2019–and 47 percent of sextortion victims experience daily threats.
Once it happens, sextortion is obvious. The perpetrator demands payment and threatens to reveal your intimate images or video if you do not pay them. Spotting sextortion before it starts, however, requires a little more diligence.
Listed below are three common examples of internet sextortion:
Common Sextortion Examples You Should Keep an Eye Out For
1. Social Media Sextortion
With the prevalence of social media, it is no surprise that sextortion scams and schemes are rampant on those platforms. Most of these social media sites enable users to chat via webcam and send photographs. This situation is a breeding ground for sextortionists and harassers looking for a victim.
Any site that allows users to meet and communicate is vulnerable to possible sextortion scams, including:
- Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat,
- Online video games such as Minecraft, Fortnite, or World of Warcraft,
- Video chat platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts.
Sextortionists will often build up the victim’s trust before asking them to send explicit photos. Or, the perpetrator will convince the victim to join a video chat. They might use pre-recorded videos of an attractive person to trick victims into engaging in sexual acts or compromising positions.
Once the call is finished, sextortionists then request a ransom. They threaten to release the compromising photographs or videos to the victim’s personal contacts and family members.
Minc Law Tip: If a person outside of your contacts has friended you on social media, try conducting a reverse image search of their profile photo. Doing so is an effective way to find other websites, profiles, and platforms that have used the photograph. The photo may be a stock image, for instance, or it may belong to a completely different user’s profile. If your gut tells you something is “fishy” about the reverse image search results, you should be extremely reluctant to accept that friend request.
2. Dating Website Sextortion
Online dating websites are not the main way online extortionists and internet harassers find victims. However, you should still approach them with caution. People who use online dating platforms might be more vulnerable to exploitation and emotional manipulation due to a past breakup or the desire to find a partner for life.
Popular dating websites that are commonly utilized by sextortionists include:
- Plenty of Fish,
Dating profile sextortion scams take a similar shape to social media sextortion. An attractive and fake dating profile messages a victim then asks for intimate photographs, videos, media, or other information.
Once they have obtained the information, they then locate the victim’s personal social media profiles. They threaten to release the images and information to friends and loved ones—unless strict demands are met.
It is also common for a victim to remove clothing or send intimate photographs to a website/application user. Then, they find out that the perpetrator is “under 18.” The perpetrator then threatens to send the sexual photographs, texts, or videos to the FBI unless a ransom is paid.
3. Bitcoin Sextortion & Email Phishing
The rise of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, and blockchain over the past several years has resulted in some of the most highly sophisticated and tech-savvy sextortion schemes the internet has ever seen.
In one common online sextortion scam, the perpetrator uses a large-scale data breach or hack to find email addresses and passwords. They then enter the information into a script and send it to thousands of potential victims.
For example, a recent hack of Ledger (a popular Bitcoin hardware wallet) made customers’ email addresses, full names, phone numbers, and postal addresses available to hackers. The hackers then began a mass email campaign to everyone on the affected list. These phishing emails were from fake Ledger accounts, informing potential victims that their Ledger accounts have been disabled (in an attempt to extract more sensitive information).
For sextortionists, the phishing email tries to convince the reader that the perpetrator has access to the victim’s computer, webcam, personal files, or browsing history.
Victims of these kinds of scams are often given a time limit to deliver payment to prevent the mass dissemination of such unsavory information or media. The payment method? Bitcoin.
The demand that a victim pay in cryptocurrency should raise a red flag from the beginning. This scam preys upon numbers, hoping that a single person will be gullible enough to believe that their computer has been breached.
The personal information “obtained” by the hacker is oftentimes an empty threat, so the best course of action is to ignore it. Simply delete the email, change your password if you feel uncomfortable, and in no circumstances pay the reward at all.
If you are curious if your data has been compromised in a past data-breach, we recommend entering your email address at haveibeenpwned.com.
What Laws Cover Internet Sextortion?
Sextortion is a crime in the United States. However, there is a lack of comprehensive legislation regulating sextortion at the federal level.
There is a wide variance in the laws regarding sextortion across the 50 states, and many state laws fall short in addressing the complexities involved in acts of sextortion. Most often, sextortionists in the U.S. are prosecuted under the following criminal statutes:
- Computer hacking and wiretapping,
- Breach of trust,
- Sexual coercion,
- Sexual assault,
- Sexual exploitation, or
- Child pornography.
For example, Utah enacted specific legislation in 2017 (the first state in the Union to do so) criminalizing and defining “sextortion” and “cyber-sexual extortion.” Section 76-5-111 reads:
“An individual who is 18 years old or older commits the offense of sexual extortion if the individual:
- With an intent to coerce a victim to engage in sexual conduct, in sexually explicit conduct, or in simulated sexually explicit conduct, or to produce, provide, or distribute an image, video, or other recording of an individual naked or engaged in sexually explicit conduct, communicates in person or by electronic means a threat:
- To the victim’s person, property, or reputation; or
- To distribute an intimate image or video of the victim; or
- Knowingly causes a victim to engage in sexual contact, in sexually explicit conduct, or in simulated sexually explicit conduct, or to produce, provide, or distribute any image, video, or other recording of any individual naked or engaged in sexually explicit conduct by means of a threat….”
Section 76-5-111 accounts for both the sexual coercion to engage in sexual acts and contact, and distribute sexually explicit and intimate images, a first for sexual extortion legislation in the U.S.
On the other hand, sextortion is criminalized under California’s extortion statute as a form of blackmail. According to California Penal Code 518:
“(a) Extortion is the obtaining of property or other consideration from another, with his or her consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right…”
Section (b) goes on to define “consideration” as “anything of value, including sexual conduct…”
Many individuals facing threats of sextortion on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook can become the target of additional false accusations of sexual assault. If you are the target of false sexual assault on twitter, we recommend checking out our article on the subject, “Steps to Take if You Are Falsely Accused of Sexual Assault on Twitter“, as well as our video version below.
Video: Steps to Take if You Are Falsely Accused of Sexual Misconduct on Twitter
U.S. Sextortion Fact: Unfortunately, like other malicious internet crimes, the U.S. does not have comprehensive legislation for sextortion codified in its books. Sextortion crimes are often tried under various criminal statutes. Several popular sextortion cases in the U.S. have resulted in anywhere from 1.5 years to 20-plus years in prison for perpetrators.
How to Protect Yourself Against Sextortion
The easiest way to protect yourself from being sexorted is to avoid sending explicit content to anyone else via phone, tablet, or computer. Keep your wits (and a healthy amount of skepticism) about you when another person asks you to send intimate photos or videos online. Do not send intimate photos to or video-chat with a person you have not met in real life.
To avoid falling victim to sextortion, be sure to use the following tips:
- Set all of your social media accounts to private;
- Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone—no matter how close you are to them;
- Do not open attachments from people you do not know;
- Turn off your electronic devices and web cameras when not in use;
- On social media or dating platforms, be wary of unknown users who try to move the conversation to another platform very quickly;
- Be wary of new online connections who send you unsolicited sexual images that they claim are pictures of themselves. Sextortionists often use this tactic to guide the conversation in a sexual direction and lower their victim’s guard.
How Can You Spot Sextortion Scams?
Most sextortion scams follow a familiar pattern. A stranger messages you on social media, a dating app, text, or in an email. Usually, they will ask to move the conversation over to a texting app or platform such as Hangouts, WhatsApp, or Skype.
The conversation eventually leads to sexually suggestive themes. You may see the person on the other end of the video chat engaged in sexually suggestive intimate images or video. They will invite you to join in the fun—but these are often fake or pre-recorded images or videos.
They just want you to send them intimate images or videos of yourself. They plan to record you, then threaten to share your images unless you pay them. These payments are usually requested through Western-Union, Bitcoin, PayPal, or other familiar channels.
How Do You Know Who Can Be Trusted Online?
Unfortunately, the answer is simple: you can never know whether you should trust a person you just met online.
A good rule of thumb is to only trust people online if you have met them in real life and have a good reason to believe that they are who they say they are. Even then, you should be mindful of how well you know a person when interacting with them online.
How to Respond to Internet Sextortion
The first thing you should do when you realize you may be the victim of sextortion is to remain calm.
Do NOT panic, do not pay the ransom, and immediately stop engaging with the person who is trying to extort you. It might seem counterintuitive to ignore a malicious online perpetrator, stalker, or sextortionist. However, engaging with them further only stands to make matters worse.
Paying a ransom can add fuel to the fire, letting the perpetrator know that you will honor all demands. Responding to the sextortionist or doing what they ask can escalate the situation. A request for sexual images can quickly turn into actual sexual favors.
Cutting all contact with the perpetrator helps remove the power dynamic at play. After all, they have engaged with you in the hopes that you will panic and send them what they want. Without open lines of communication, their ability to torment you further becomes minimal.
Instead of engaging with the perpetrator, take the following actions as soon as you possibly can:
1. Document All Communications & Evidence
It is often a victim’s first response and natural instinct to delete all communications and material sent by a perpetrator. However, deleting the evidence only stands to make one’s case harder to prove. Tangible documentation is essential for bringing a successful legal claim of sextortion.
After all, without evidence, your case solely rests upon your word versus a stranger’s.
To strengthen your case, we recommend asking a trusted family member or friend to help you document evidence. Doing so will help refute any claims by a sextortionist that you have materially altered or tampered with the evidence.
Finally, make sure to screenshot the specific times and dates that the communications and materials took place. Telling a detailed chronological story is important, and small details ultimately help strengthen a case.
2. Secure All Online Accounts & Social Media Profiles
Securing all online profiles and accounts is crucial for helping prevent sextortion. According to a survey by the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Center, 54% of sextortion victims were contacted on social media. Another 41% of sextortion instances took place on messaging apps.
To secure your online accounts, set all profiles and accounts to private. Try not to accept friend requests from (and subsequently engage with) users you do not know. Beware of profiles that have minimal posts and pictures, and those that are not in your immediate network of friends and family.
One question we are asked often is, “do sextortionists follow through on their threats?”. To answer this question, We created the below video, What Are the Chances a Sextortionist Relesases My Intimate Images & Videos? In the video, Darcy Buxton, our Head Paralegal, will walk you through the likelihood that a sextortionist will act on their threats – and why it is that they usually do not follow through.
Every situation is different, and you may not know what content the sextortioner has in possession, or their willingness to publish it should they not get their way. If you have already engaged with a sextortionist or online blackmailer, we recommend blocking them on social media. Blocking these perpetrators can help prevent them from gaining further access to a list of your friends and family members.
Sometimes, a perpetrator will create multiple accounts to harass victims online. If this happens, you may want to delete your social media profile until legal action is taken. We also recommend deleting or deactivating your profile if you are a target of public shaming on social media. We also recommend checking out our resource, What to Do if Someone is Blackmailing You Online.
3. Contact the Relevant Social Media Website
However, most social media websites are bombarded with content removal requests and reports. It can sometimes take days or weeks for a proper response.
Also, social media platforms are classified as user-generated content platforms, which means they are under no obligation to remove certain types of content. The only exceptions are for content that is illegal or legally provided for under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). We cover Section 230 in greater detail in the video below, including the pros and cons of the legislation, significant court cases that have shaped how it is interpreted, and exceptions to the law.
Video: What is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act?
4. Reach Out to an Experienced Internet Attorney
Web sextortion and online blackmail can be highly nuanced and complex areas of law. They are often prosecuted under state-specific statutes (which are not often written to include sextortion specifically).
If you are a victim of sextortion and web blackmail, we recommend reaching out to an experienced internet attorney. Doing so will not only save you time but future headache and hassle.
Not only can experienced internet lawyers help identify online perpetrators and malicious trolls, but they can also help:
- Remove the illegal and defamatory content,
- Secure its de-indexing from Google search results,
- Compel workplace and administrative action,
- Work with relevant law enforcement agencies and authorities,
- Hold malicious individuals liable for their attacks.
Experienced internet attorneys have built up a wide array of cost-effective and savvy legal tactics over the years to quickly and efficiently combat web sextortion and online blackmail.
Find out how much an internet extortion lawyer costs by reading our comprehensive article ‘How Much Does an Online Extortion Lawyer Cost?’.
How Do You Report Potential Sextortion Scams?
If you are in the United States, you can report sextortion crimes to your local law enforcement office and the FBI. If you believe you are a victim of sextortion, contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).
If you are located in the United Kingdom, you should contact your local police and internet service provider immediately. If you are in Australia, you can make an image-based report to the eSafety commissioner.
You can also report the perpetrator to the social media platform or website where the sextortion took place. For instance:
- To report a fake or threatening profile for Facebook sextortion or other scams, click the three dots in the upper right corner of a post. Select report profile, and then choose from the options (including “pretending to be someone,” “fake profile,” and “fake name”).
- To report inappropriate content on Snapchat, press and hold the ‘snap’ in question, then click the flag image or the “Report snap” button.
- To report a tweet or direct message on Twitter, tap the three dots in the upper corner of the tweet and click “Report tweet.” Select “It’s abusive or harmful,” then provide any additional information about the issue you are reporting.
What Should You Avoid Doing if You Have Been the Victim of a Sextortion Scam?
If you are the victim of sextortion, make sure to avoid communicating with or paying the person who is attempting to blackmail you.
You should also avoid proactively informing your employer, friends, and family that you have been sextorted.
Refrain from sharing any embarrassing information about how you ended up in this position. In many cases, sharing your circumstances publicly is unnecessary, since you may be able to resolve the situation without telling anyone else in your social circle—especially if you obtain a lawyer.
What if I Have Already Paid the Blackmailer?
If you already tried to meet the perpetrator’s demands before reading this article, do not lose hope. You may be able to cancel the money transfer before it is finalized since many blackmailers elect to pick up cash from the transfer in person. However, they will likely try to retrieve the money as soon as possible, so you should act as quickly as you can.
If you have already initiated a transfer, we recommend contacting your bank as well as the transfer site for further information and for help canceling your transaction. Blackmailers typically use international money transfer platforms such as:
- Cash App
- Western Union
What Legal Services Can Do to Stop Internet Sextortion
Legal remedies are limited, but legal advice can be invaluable. If you have been the victim of internet sextortion, a lawyer can advise you on your legal rights.
Given the widespread prevalence and global nature of the internet, many internet sextortion scams originate overseas and affect parties located across international borders. This presents significant logistical challenges in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
While contacting law enforcement can be the first response for many victims of sextortion, contacting law enforcement comes with the risk of potentially creating a public record of something you would rather keep private when a police report is made.
In certain circumstances, if you have met (in real life) the person who is engaging in sextortion, you may want to consult with an attorney about the basis of your relationship with the person extorting you before reaching out to law enforcement, especially if money or any potential illegality was involved.
Sound legal advice can help victims of sextortion avoid embarrassing pitfalls and save them from quickly giving up their hard-earned money out of fear.
Law firms and attorneys that are capable of handling internet sextortion cases will have content on their websites that provides guidance on handling internet sextortion. The best law firms and sextortion attorneys will have personal experience handling sextortion cases and can advise you on best practices, costs, risks, and outcomes based on years of experience.
If you have been the victim of sextortion, a lawyer who specializes in reputation management and digital risk protection (DRP) can help you navigate the options at your disposal to monitor the internet to identify and prevent subsequent attacks. Minc has a DRP service that may help you identify and ward off online attacks against yours or your business’ reputation. We recommend checking out our page on the subject for an overview of the services we offer: “Frequently Asked Questions About Digital Risk Protection“.
If You Are Being Sextorted on the Internet, We Can Help
When being victimized and abused online, it can be difficult to know where to turn. In today’s digital age, an astonishingly high percentage of both teenagers and adults have been the victim of sextortion or some other form of online harassment and stalking.
At Minc Law, we know how to leverage the full weight of the law and investigative tools to stop online harassers, stalkers, bullies, and extortionists. In our tenure as nationally-recognized internet attorneys, we have developed a comprehensive legal approach with an effective arsenal of tactics to remove embarrassing, illegal, and intimidating content. Furthermore, we can hold offenders liable for their actions.
If you are a victim of an extortion scam or need to remove sensitive images or videos from the internet, contact the experienced attorneys at Minc Law today by calling us at (216) 373-7706 or by filling out our contact form online. If you are a fit for our sextortion services, we offer paid attorney consultations with one of our sextortion attorneys for a cost of $400.
Unfortunately I got extorted. I am glad I took swift action with Minc. They saved me a lot of stress and felt confident working with them with dealing with my situation.
OP, November 11, 2021