A little-known sex crime called “sextortion” is becoming more common, and teens are often the victims. Sextortion is when a perpetrator obtains a victim’s private and sensitive photos or videos and then threatens to release them publicly unless the victim meets their demands. Perpetrators tend to blackmail their victims into paying them money, sending sexual images or video, or performing a sex act.
A perpetrator can obtain a victim’s photos or videos in a variety of ways. Sometimes the perpetrator is an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend. They may have agreed to share compromising photos while dating, but once the relationship has dissolved, either partner has the ability to blackmail the other. Sometimes the perpetrator is someone the victim meets online. Online perpetrators might gain the victim’s trust by pretending to be someone they are not. Occasionally, the perpetrator can be a stranger and/or hacker. Some offenders send out malware that allows them to remotely take control of a victim’s computer and spy on them via their webcam without their knowledge.
Here are some things you can do to help your teen avoid becoming a victim:
- Have a discussion with your teen about online safety and appropriate behavior. Explain sextortion and how it happens.
- Advise your teen to never send compromising images of themselves to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
- Instruct your teen to never open attachments from people they do not know.
- Request that your teen turns off their electronic devices and web cameras when they are not using them.
If your teen receives sextortion threats, advise them to do the following:
- Tell an adult. No matter how embarrassing it feels, people fall victim to sextortion all the time. You are not alone, and you’re not at fault. Tell a trusted adult or call the FBI. The FBI takes sextortion crimes seriously, and they know how to deal with these criminals without judging the victim.
- Don’t communicate further with the criminal. Once you realize that you are dealing with a sextortioner, cut off all communication with them. Many major social media networks have a button where users can report online abuse, and these platforms usually act quickly. But first, victims should take a screen capture of the material, print it out and save it for law enforcement. Suspend your Facebook account (don’t delete it). You can have any video blocked using the social media’s online reporting process, but also set up an alert in case the video resurfaces.
- Preserve evidence. Do NOT delete any past correspondence. Take screen shots of anything that might be deleted (for example, if you report online abuse to one of the social media platforms). Make a note of any details provided by the perpetrator. If you have communicated with the perpetrator in person or on the phone, write down the date and time of these conversations and a summary of what you talked about and/or did.
- Don’t pay. Many victims who have paid continue to get demands for higher amounts of money. In some cases, even when demands have been met, offenders will still go on to post the personal information anyway.
- Seek counseling. Sextortion is very traumatizing and embarrassing, and it often makes victims feel vulnerable. It is a great idea to talk to a mental health professional to discuss your emotions.
If your teen does come to you with a case of sextortion, be sure to stay calm and praise your teen for letting you know about the issue. Encourage your teen to allow your family to contact the police or FBI.