If someone is threatening to share intimate images or webcam video of you—or even worse, of your underage child—it is natural to be panicked and unsure of what to do. Your first question is likely, “Where can I turn to for sextortion help?”
First, know that you are not alone. We recommend taking the following steps and exploring the below resources for help with your sextortion matter:
- Do not pay the sextortionist,
- Save records of all communication with the perpetrator,
- Set all of your online accounts and social media profiles to private,
- Report the sextortion to the relevant social media platform,
- Reach out to an experienced internet attorney, and
- Report the crime to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.
It can be isolating and devastating to be targeted by a sextortionist—and at Minc Law, we are here to help. We have proven success handling sextortion in all its forms, and we have helped hundreds of clients like you resolve the situation without drawing unwanted attention. We know how to prevent the release of harmful images and videos, work with local law enforcement on your behalf, and put an end to the sextortionist’s threats once and for all.
In this article, we provide helpful resources for identifying sextortion and preventing it before it happens to you. And if you have already been targeted by a sextortionist, we list actionable steps and resources you can turn to for sextortion help.
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What is Sextortion?
Sextortion, also known as webcam blackmail, is the crime of threatening to share private, explicit material about you if you do not pay them (or meet some other demand).
Perpetrators try to intimidate their victims with the fear that their intimate photos or videos will be shared with their friends, family, and coworkers. Many victims panic and pay a ransom in exchange for the promise that the explicit images will not be released.
Sextortion is also commonly referred to as:
- Web sextortion,
- Webcam sextortion,
- Online sextortion,
- Cyber harassment,
- Internet blackmail, and
How Can I Know If Something is Sextortion or Not?
Sextortion always involves a threat to release explicit information unless money or another ransom is paid. If a stranger (or someone you know) asks you for a favor in exchange for not exposing intimate information about or images of you, they are sextorting you.
Some scammers try to trick their victims into believing they are being sextorted when they really are not. For example, say you receive an email from a stranger claiming they have evidence of your inappropriate search history or your nude photos that they hacked from your cloud account. You do not know what they are talking about, but you panic and pay them.
This situation is a phishing email scam—but it is not sextortion. If you have not had an exchange of private images or messages and the threat is coming out of nowhere, the perpetrator may simply be trying to trick you.
Of course, sextortion is not always cut and dry. If you are in any way unsure of whether your situation qualifies as sextortion, it is worth reaching out to an experienced attorney.
How Common is Webcam Blackmail?
Sextortion and webcam blackmail are becoming the most common types of online scams. The FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3) received over 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, with over $13.6 million in victim losses. According to one UK revenge porn helpline, reports of sextortion doubled from 2020 to 2021, with 88% of cases involving a male victim.
Not only is online extortion an increasingly common problem, but it can affect anyone—and it can be challenging to identify ahead of time if you do not know what to look for.
What Are the Goals of Sextortionists?
Sextortionists want to use your fear against you for their own gain. Their goal is to make you afraid that your compromising information or images will get out and cause damage to your reputation, relationships, and career opportunities.
By holding this threat over your head, they hope to coerce you into paying them money or otherwise giving them what they want.
How Sextortion Often Happens
Sextortion is increasingly popular in the digital world, and it can affect anyone. It is crucial to stay calm and arm yourself with knowledge so that you know what to look for—and how to act if and when a sextortionist targets you.
Who Does Sextortion Happen to Most Often?
Sextortionists are increasingly choosing to target underage victims. One 2018 survey found that approximately 5% of middle- and high-school-aged participants had been victims of sextortion. And one 2017 survey found that one in four teenage sextortion victims was 13 years old or younger when the incident occurred.
However, no matter your gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other demographic, sextortion can happen to anyone. Sextortion is a numbers game, which means sextortionists are not selective in their victims. While it is true that the most common victims are teenagers and men between 40 and 70 years old, anyone who is willing to chat with strangers online is a potential target. Especially since the Covid-19 pandemic caused more internet use than ever, sextortion is on the rise and affecting victims of all demographics.
Perpetrators commonly use social media sites, dating websites or apps, text messages, and even email to conduct their scams. They contact as many profiles, numbers, and/or email addresses as they can. These scammers usually use a template message and hope that a small number of recipients will respond.
How Do Criminals Get Material to Blackmail Their Sextortion Victims With?
Social media is by far the preferred hunting ground for sextortionists. Perpetrators send private messages to their victims and try to build relationships of trust with those who respond. Eventually, they ask their victim to send sexually explicit photos or videos. Once the sextortionist gets their hands on the compromising content, they drop the friendly act and begin threatening their victim.
Other sextortionists obtain explicit material by hacking into their victims’ computers or cloud accounts. Either way, once they have the intimate images, they threaten to make them public unless the victim pays a ransom.
What Are the Most Common Forms Of Sextortion?
Online sextortion commonly happens in one of four ways:
- Social media scams,
- Online dating site schemes,
- “Cam girl” scams, and
- Bitcoin and email phishing scams.
Another common scam uses email phishing to trick recipients into thinking they are being sextorted.
We cover each scenario below.
Social Media Sextortion
Given the popularity of social media, it makes sense that sextortion scammers would gravitate toward those platforms. Most social media sites allow users to send private messages, chat via webcam, and exchange photos. Any scammer looking for a victim can find plenty of opportunities through social networking and online communication sites such as:
- Google Hangouts,
- Skype, and
- Online video games with a chat component, like Minecraft or Fortnite.
In social media sextortion, the scam begins with a new connection. The perpetrator adds the victim as a “friend,” initiates a conversation, and builds up the victim’s trust before eventually asking for explicit photos or videos. They may ask the victim to join a video chat, where they use pre-recorded videos of an attractive person to entice the victim to “return the favor” by engaging in sexual acts on video.
The sextortionist then tells the victim that the call was recorded—and they threaten to release the video to the victim’s personal contacts unless they pay a ransom.
Dating Website Sextortion
While dating platforms are less popular with sextortionists than social media sites, you should still use caution when on dating apps. This is especially true because dating app users are looking for a romantic partner and tend to be emotionally vulnerable, which opens them up to manipulation or exploitation.
Sextortionists tend to use the following dating websites:
Dating app sextortion scams often look like social media sextortion in practice. The scammer creates a fake dating profile (complete with photos of an attractive person) and messages their victim. They strike up a conversation, which eventually turns flirtatious and explicit. Once the victim has sent intimate messages, images, and/or video, the scammer threatens to release the explicit media unless their demands are met.
Another typical move for scammers on dating apps is to claim to be “under 18” after the victim has sent explicit content. The perpetrator threatens to send the evidence to the FBI unless the victim pays a ransom.
Cam Girl Sextortion
One sextortion method that is on the rise is the cam girl scam. In this scenario, the perpetrator records or obtains the victim’s private webcam footage while the victim believes they are engaging with a cam girl or cam model.
Perhaps the perpetrator friends you on a social media or dating site, entices you into a private webcam call, and records the session without your knowledge or permission. Or perhaps you visit a “cam girl site” and pay for a private session using your own webcam. You believe you are engaging with the cam girl privately, but the video on the other end is pre-recorded, and the perpetrator is recording you.
Once the perpetrator obtains the video footage from your webcam, they use that footage to extort you.
Bitcoin Sextortion & Email Phishing
In one common and tech-savvy sextortion scheme, the scammer uses a hack or large-scale data breach to access hundreds or thousands of email addresses and passwords. They send a phishing email in bulk to every affected person, claiming to have access to the victim’s computer, webcam, browsing history, and/or personal files. They often give a time limit to send payment (via Bitcoin or cryptocurrency); otherwise, they will leak the compromising content.
The demand for payment in cryptocurrency should immediately raise a red flag. This scam is truly a numbers game, with the perpetrators hoping that just a tiny percentage of the recipients will panic and pay immediately. Often, the scammer does not have access to any compromising content and is just trying to scare you. The best response is to delete the email and change your password if you feel uncomfortable.
If the scammer does not have compromising images or information about you, this scenario is not actually sextortion; it is simply an email phishing scam.
If you are ever concerned an email may be part of a phishing scam, copy the contents of the email and paste it into a Google search to see if others have reported the same email. You can also check the FBI’s consumer alerts page or Google “phishing email scams [insert year]” to see a list of the most recent email scams circulating online.
How to Protect Yourself From Becoming a Victim Of Sextortion
There are countless preventative measures you can use to protect yourself from becoming a victim of sextortion. And if you have already been targeted by a sextortionist, do not worry—in the next section, we address steps you can take to obtain sextortion help.
How Can You Keep Photos & Information Private so That You Do Not Become a Victim of Sextortion?
Protecting your privacy is essential when it comes to avoiding sextortion scams. We recommend taking the following actions:
- Set your social media profiles to private. Most social media platforms allow you to limit who can see and interact with your social profile. Even if you have not been targeted by a scammer, it is a good idea to limit the personal information about you that potential scammers can access in the future.
- Avoid sending explicit images or videos of yourself to anyone. The best way to avoid sextortion is to never send compromising images to anyone online.
- Do not go online when vulnerable. The most dangerous time to engage with strangers is after a few drinks or when you are recovering from a breakup. These situations make you more vulnerable to sextortion schemes.
- Do not open suspicious attachments. No matter if it is in an email, an SMS text, or a private message on social media, avoid opening attachments or clicking links from people you do not know.
- Disable your web cameras when not in use. Webcam hacking is real—and you do not want to be on the receiving end of it. Close your laptop when not in use, and place tape or a webcam cover over your webcam to keep yourself and your family safe.
- Be wary of overly flirtatious new connections on social media. Many sextortionists are eager to move the conversation to another platform (like WhatsApp) or send you unsolicited sexual images. If the conversation moves quickly into sexual territory, that should be a red flag.
What Types Of Websites Should You Avoid If You Want to Avoid Sextortion?
It is sometimes impossible to avoid certain types of websites and situations in today’s online world. However, you can approach your online activity with caution and be overly protective of what you share with strangers you meet on platforms like:
- Dating sites,
- Pornographic sites,
- Infidelity sites,
- Sexual video chatting sites,
- Gaming platforms, and
- Chat apps.
If you meet a new acquaintance on social media, it should be a significant red flag if they invite you to move to a chat app like Kik or WhatsApp. It is easy for scammers to create fake profiles on these chap platforms, making their sextortion schemes even easier.
You should also make a habit of not opening email attachments from strangers or SMS text with suspicious links. It is also a good idea to avoid clicking links that redirect you away from social media sites.
How Do You Know Who Can Be Trusted Online?
Unfortunately, there is no foolproof system for deciding who you can trust online. Even if the new account claims to be a friend you know in real life, there is always a chance that a scammer is impersonating that individual. And sextortionists are skilled at building up their victims’ trust before springing the trap.
As a general rule, you should only trust online users if you (1) have met the person in real life, and (2) you have good reason to believe they are who they say they are. And even then, be careful of sharing too much personal information online.
If a new account sends you a friend request on social media or reaches out to you online, beware of red flags like:
- Sending you links or attachments;
- Asking for personal information that can be used to identify you (like your family, address, school background, job history, etc.);
- Odd usernames (like random numbers paired with common names or words, e.g., “prettyflower60488”).
If you are suspicious of a new account, you can always conduct a reverse image search of their profile photo. This technique is an easy way to find out whether the user obtained their photo from a stock image site, for instance, or from a completely different user’s profile.
When to Seek Legal Help Against a Sextortionist
There are many preventative measures to take to avoid sextortion, but even the most guarded internet user is not entirely immune from these types of scams. If you or someone you love—like your child—are a target of sextortion, it can be hard to know where to turn for help, what agencies or authorities to report it to, and how to keep the situation as discreet as possible.
Video: What to Do If You or Your Child is a Victim of Sextortion
In this section, we provide tips on when and how to reach out for sextortion help.
What Should You Do if Someone is Threatening to Post Pictures of You Online?
If a sextortionist is threatening you, remain calm. Nothing is ever worth taking extreme action or causing self-harm over. Everything will be alright and you have options. Your first instinct may be to pay the scammer and hope the problem goes away—but this is usually the last thing you should do.
Instead, cut off all contact with the perpetrator immediately and follow these steps:
Do Not Pay the Sextortionist
It may feel like you have no choice but to pay the ransom—but remember, a sextortionist is hoping you will panic and give in to their demands out of fear. Paying a scammer rarely makes the problem disappear; on the contrary, it simply shows them you can be manipulated.
Meeting the sextortionist’s demands (and even engaging with them at all) can escalate the situation. The scammer will believe you are an easy target, and that if you paid them once, you will do so again. There is nothing to stop them from coming back with demands for more money or sexual images.
If you have already paid the scammer, do not send them any more money or respond to any more of their messages.
Save Evidence of All Communications With the Sextortionist
Next, save as much evidence of your contact with the perpetrator as possible. It may be your first instinct to delete all proof of the compromising material about you, but remember that this may be helpful when reporting to platforms and law enforcement.
Take screenshots of the explicit material and all private messages, along with the times and dates they took place. You may also want to ask a trusted friend or family member to help you document the proof as a guard against the perpetrator’s potential claim that you tampered with the evidence.
Secure All Online Accounts & Social Media Profiles
Many sextortionists do research on social media to find their victims’ closest friends and family. They then threaten to release the explicit material to that list of people unless the victim pays a ransom.
To protect your privacy and mitigate the damage in the rare case that the sextortionist does follow through on their threats, set all of your online accounts and social media profiles to private. If you have already communicated with the perpetrator on social media, we recommend blocking them so that they cannot gain further access to your private information and contacts.
Some sextortionists create multiple social media profiles to harass a victim. If this is happening to you—or if you are a target of social media shaming—you may want to delete your profile until the situation is resolved.
Contact the Relevant Social Media Platform
Keep in mind, though, that most social media platforms are bombarded with reports and content removal requests. You may not receive a response for several days or weeks.
Also, these platforms are not under any obligation to remove certain types of content or user profiles. As user-generated content platforms, they are generally protected from legal liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). This means you cannot sue platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Google for content posted on their websites.
Reach Out to an Experienced Internet Attorney
If you are a victim of sextortion, an experienced internet defamation attorney can provide invaluable resources and support. Web sextortion can be a complex and highly nuanced area of law, and the legal remedies often depend on the specific statutes in your state.
A legal team experienced in internet law can not only help clarify your legal options but they can also:
- Take control of communications with the sextortionist,
- Work with relevant law enforcement authorities,
- Report sextortionists to the appropriate online platforms and websites,
- Remove harmful content from websites and from Google search results, and
- Provide judgment-free support and a listening ear.
What Legal Aid is Available to Victims of Sextortion?
If you are being targeted by a sextortionist, an attorney can assess your situation and lay out all of your legal options. An experienced internet sextortion attorney has developed processes and tech-savvy remedies for unmasking anonymous perpetrators, removing content from platforms, and working with law enforcement to resolve these situations as effectively and tactfully as possible.
If hiring a sextortion attorney isn’t within your budget, there are still options available. For example, we recommend reaching out to your local legal aid society. You can locate them by searching “[your area + legal aid].”
We also recommend reaching out to local law schools in your area, as many have formal pro bono services and programs available. You can find a comprehensive list of law school pro bono programs at this link.
It is also critical to take care of your mental health during this time. Everything is going to be alright and understand that you are not alone. We recommend checking out this comprehensive resource center for mental health resources and speaking with a trained counselor (who is there to support you anonymously). You can also visit Thorn’s resource page for sextortion victims to find helplines and legal aid groups.
Finally, you may ask questions (for free) on the American Bar Association website and receive answers from qualified attorneys.
How Do You Report Someone Threatening You With Sextortion?
Depending on where you live and your individual situation, there are numerous law enforcement and investigative agencies where you can report sextortion and online harassment. If you live in the U.S., U.K, Canada, or Australia, you can file reports with the following agencies:
- FBI Internet Crimes Complaint Center (United States);
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (United States);
- National Crime Agency (United Kingdom);
- Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (United Kingdom);
- Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (Canada);
- eSafety Commissioner (Australia).
To learn more about reporting sextortion, see our comprehensive article: Law Enforcement Agencies Who Deal With Sextortion: How to Report Sextortion.
If You Are Being Sextorted Online, We Can Help
If you or your child is the target of sextortion, it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to seek help. At Minc Law, we have extensive experience taking control of the situation and communications with sextortionists, and providing objective advice on how to best deal with them – all without drawing unwanted attention to the matter.
In cases where intimate images or media are published online, we can help remove them.
“Darcy was professional and patient with helping with a online reputation matter. She handled all my queries in a timely manner and she got the job done.”
July 22, 2021
We provide paid sextortion consults with an experienced Minc Law attorney for $500. If you would like to explore your legal options for combating internet sextortion, schedule a consultation today by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat Representative, or filling out our contact form online.