“Sextortion” is the fastest growing crime against children on the internet, according to the FBI. But no official records are kept, and only five states have made sextortion—whereby a perpetrator threatens victims with releasing explicit images unless they perform pornography on demand—a standalone crime.
Prosecutors say if we don’t start actively telling kids—with some victims as young as 7 years old—that sextortion could happen to anyone (even those who have never shared a single intimate image), the problem is only going to get worse.
Although the FBI does not yet officially track instances of sextortion, the currently available data indicates that the problem is expanding. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found a 150 percent rise in reports of sextortion to its CyberTipline between 2014 and 2016.
The stories are horrifying. A little girl who is threatened that her dog will be killed if she doesn’t send a naked picture. Forced sibling sex, involving 7- and 8-year-olds, along with bestiality. The 12-year-old girl who got a computer for Christmas then fell into a conversation with a predator who told her he was remotely controlling the device and could explode it like a bomb if she did not take her top off.
“Sextortion is definitely on the rise, particularly targeting young women,” warned Mona Sedky, a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, who has spent the last six years prosecuting victims of sextortion. “I had a case very recently, where the defendant sextorted dozens and dozens of young women all over the country. One brave young woman, after being sextorted for weeks and weeks, finally confided in her friend. If it hadn’t been for that one brave victim to finally come forward, the defendant would still be at large today victimizing other young women.”
This week, Ashton Kutcher’s child advocacy non-profit Thorn launched a public awareness campaign at stopsexstortion.com (victims can also get immediate help by texting “thorn” to 741741) and coordinated messaging from Facebook, Twitter, and celebrities like Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell, who shot a PSA, and Cindy McCain, who tweeted, “If #sextortion happens to you, there is #NoShame in asking for help, I’m here to listen.”
A major part of the problem is that it is so uncomfortable for minors to tell anyone when they are being sexually blackmailed, which is what makes sextortion so insidious, and sometimes fatal. In Utah, a 21-year-old man a month away from graduation killed himself in 2015 rather than tell his mother the details of what happened to him.
“For the first time in the history of the world you can sexually assault somebody who’s not on the same continent as you—and by the way, you can do it to 50 people,” said senior fellow Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution, who conducted the 2016 groundbreaking study on the widespread “virtual sexual assault” that is the sextortion phenomenon. The scalability of crimes and the sadistic pathology of the perpetrators are part of what it makes sextortion so ominous. Criminals keep intricate logs, refer to what they do as “slaving,” and get off on the humiliation of providing deadlines and routines to perform demeaning sexual acts on cue.
“A huge amount of it is exercising control over people in particularly brutal and sustained fashion,” Wittes said.
States without sexual blackmail laws can use federal child pornography statutes to get justice for victims, but in some states, the extortion laws are restricted to just money or property, not forced sexual conduct. Many cases are being handled at the federal level.
Attorney Carrie Goldberg is one of the lawyers who is leading the fight. Threatened with revenge porn herself when she was younger, she contributed to the Brookings Institution study and wrote a piece about how perpetrators lure in their victims. In her work, she has removed more than 17,000 nonconsensual pornographic images and videos from the internet, and a significant number of these were created by victims of sextortion.
“Sexual extortionists are vicious and frighteningly patient perverts who essentially turn their targets into sex slaves by deceiving them over months on social media through fake profiles and gaining their victims’ trust before requesting nudes or images,” Goldberg said. “When a target gives in—often after a lot of guilt and pestering from the offender—they are then blackmailed and the campaign of horror deepens. Victims are made to do shocking and degrading acts on camera for the perv’s enjoyment. Like all sex crimes, this is about control through fear and degradation.”
One of the most recent high-profile cases yet, which was prosecuted by Sedky, involved Michael Ford, a State Department employee who was working in London, where he spent two years hacking into online accounts and stealing photographs, then threatening about 75 women to provide pornographic materials—or else.
Ford made it appear that he was right outside their windows, likely by using Google Earth, to identify their apartments and relate details. His threats to women included specifics like, “I like your red fire escape. Easy to climb.” One woman fell asleep every night with a knife under her pillow. He was sentenced to 57 months.
The FBI does not keep official tracking records for sextortion yet (one of the problems which advocates say needs to change), but Wittes’ study last year identified 80 cases, involving more than 3,000 victims, and he says it’s the tip of the iceberg.
“We’ve only scratched the surface,” he said. “The community of victims is enormous, and yet they’re not in touch with each other. There’s no organization that represents them. Nobody identifies them because they’re not trying to re-victimize people. But it produces this asymmetry in that everybody is aware of the problem of revenge porn, and most people are not aware of the problem of sextortion.”
Part of the problem is the silence on the topic in schools and amongst parents, which predators then exploit, turning their victimization into something so big in a child’s mind that they could never dare tell another soul.
“The crime can have devastating impacts on these victims, who are already at a vulnerable time in their lives,” Sedky said. “They are afraid to tell their parents, to tell authorities, or even to confide in their friends. We need to hear from them so that we can prosecute the perpetrators and put them in jail.
As Brock Nicholson, head of Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta, recently said of the issue, “Predators used to stalk playgrounds. This is the new playground.”
But if parents aren’t willing to talk to their kids, someone else is going to take advantage of that—often in ways that the non-sociopathic mind can barely even begin to comprehend.
“When we were writing our report, something we struggled with was how much detail to include,” Wittes said. “We didn’t want to write something that would be titillating to the wrong people. But one of the things about these crimes is that the transcript of the crimes itself exist because it’s not like sexual assault where you are relaying a victim’s account of what happened. Here, you have logs of the actual interaction—the forensics involved—and the actual crime is something that is logged. And it is just unbelievably horrible stuff.”
Some place the spread of the problem on society’s squeamishness in avoiding sexual topics.
“Our culture’s unwillingness to talk openly and honestly about sex endangers children,” said Dr. Mary Anne Franks, who is a professor of law at University of Miami and the legislative and tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “Parents have to be willing to talk to their children about sex and the importance of sexual consent. Otherwise, they leave children to learn about sex from peers, porn, and predators.”
Crucial, too, is the notion that even if a parent is actively involved in their child’s online life, it’s important to not get too cocky about what you know.
“Many parents monitor their teen’s phone for inappropriate usage but quite honestly there are so many new apps and opportunities for something to go unnoticed,” said Dr. Shairi Turner, the chief medical officer of Crisis Text Line, which is another resource for victims. “Equally important is letting the teen know that if they find themselves a victim of sextortion, they should immediately alert their parents and that the focus will not be on punishment but on protection and safety.”
The tragedy in all this is that many ruined lives—and suicides—could be prevented if parents could suffer through the discomfort of just broaching the topic, even one time.
“It’s shocking to me how few parents know about sextortion when this is one of the most growing threats against children,” said Charlotte Laws, an anti-revenge porn activist who has counseled more than 500 victims and places the American number of reported crimes at 6,500, although the actual number is difficult to pinpoint because it so often goes unreported. “If more parents would be willing to have a single 10-minute conversation with their kids, sadly as young as 7, lives and innocence can be saved.”
Another problem is the sheer judgment on the internet alone. Look at any news story about sextortion shared on Facebook and the comments rack up again and again with comments about how stupid and naïve teenagers are to strip or send nude pictures.
“You can wag your finger about this or not, but it’s a reality that there’s a certain amount of exchange of nude sexually explicit images that is pretty normal in kids of a certain age,” Wittes said. “I’m not really very patient with people whose reaction is victim blaming. And by the way, if you think that the victims in all these cases are 15-year-old girls who are too quick to take their clothes off, that’s not what’s going on here. My friend the 60-plus-year-old public intellectual Paul Berman wrote an incredible piece about how he was the subject of sexual extortion online.”
Wittes began researching sextortion when he stumbled upon the case of master hacker Luis Mijangos, while researching his book The Future of Violence. Mijangos used malware-infection and key-logging to psychologically terrorize 230 victims, including 44 minors. Sentenced to six years of prison, Mijangos is set to be released this year.
“We were interested in the question of, ‘OK, a drone strike seemed to be the first time in history where you could sit in Nevada and plot and execute the death of a person in Yemen,” Wittes said. “We asked, what are other types of crime where you can attack someone across a great distance at an individual level electronically where people are actually projecting violence? I think of Mijangos as like a drone strike—only it’s sex.”