What Is Sextortion? [All You Need To Know About This Threat]

Selma Citakovic
Selma Citakovic

Updated · Aug 17, 2022

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Sextortion is a rising online threat that we can’t ignore. This article covers all you need to know, whether you’re a worried parent, friend, or victim. 

That includes:

  • What is sextortion
  • Common blackmail methods
  • How to prevent it
  • How to stop it and report it.

Ready to dive in?

What Is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of cyber blackmail. It involves the threat of distributing private and sensitive material unless you comply and provide the attacker with what they want. Usually, it’s money and sexual favors.

Essentially, the attacker abuses the victim’s fear and embarrassment to coerce them. They use threats of leaking private images and videos to the victim’s family, employers, and school

It typically happens in online conversations that seem innocuous at first. The predator (under a false identity) will try to establish trust with you and encourage exchanging pictures. Then they will use them against you to pressure you into sending them more explicit materials or money. 

Sextortion Methods

There are various types of sexual blackmail, some of them sneakier than others. Here are the most common ones to look out for.

Social Media Sextortion

Social media is one of the most popular hunting grounds for internet predators. It allows them to easily track down the interests of their victims and then engage them. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram are particularly vulnerable. But, any platform that allows sending pictures and video chat will do. 

A sextortionist’s favorite strategy involves slowly bonding with the victim and then asking them to join a video call. They often use pre-recorded videos of attractive people to turn the chat in a more explicit direction.

Dating Website Sextortion

Internet blackmailers frequent dating websites because their users are vulnerable and actively looking for a partner.

The most popular platforms are:

  • Tinder
  • Grindr
  • OkCupid
  • Match
  • Hinge.

Again, the sextortionist, under the guise of an attractive person, will manipulate the victim into sending them intimate pictures and information. They can then easily track down the victim’s other socials and demand money not to expose them on public platforms

Catfishing

Catfishing is the practice of assuming someone else's identity (usually good-looking) and then luring people in. This strategy is regularly used in sexual extortion.

The quickest way of determining whether someone’s profile is fake or legit is by reverse image searching their picture. That way, you can figure out if it belongs to another person or is a stock image. 

Email Phishing

Email scams are another means of sextortion. They often happen during data leaks on major servers.

Here’s how they work. 

The scammer claims to possess intimate recordings of the victim using a porn site. Then they threaten to share that footage with the victim’s contact list — unless they pay.

Blackmail By Someone You Know

This sextortion example proves that unknown criminals aren’t the only danger. Everyone who has access to your explicit pictures can potentially use them against you. Most frequently, it’s (ex)partners.

They use revenge porn to shame and push their victim into providing them with more material or even reconciling with them. Sometimes, abusive partners can use this method during the relationship to force their victims to stay.

How Do You Know Who Can Be Trusted Online?

With so many internet blackmailers prowling about, does this mean you can’t trust anyone online?

Well, no. But there are certain precautions that you should keep in mind. Here’s what to do whenever you meet someone new:

  • Carefully examine their profile for anything that seems fake.
  • Check out and compare their linked social media accounts.
  • Find out if you have friends in common.
  • Keep an eye out for any inconsistencies in their stories.
  • Keep your address and phone number private.
  • Ask your friends for their opinion on potentially fishy behavior. 
  • Trust your gut feeling.

Is Sextortion Common?

Sexual blackmail can happen to people of all ages. However, young people seem to be the most common target group.

According to Thorn’s 2017 survey, kids and teens (especially girls) are the most targeted demographic. One in four victims was 13 or younger when threatened. Two in three victims were girls before the age of 16.  

Another study (2020) focused on middle and high school students. Out of 5,568 teenagers, 5% reported being a victim of sextortion.

One more thing:

Despite the popular image of the dangerous internet stranger, 60% of the victims knew the perpetrators in person. Usually, they were scorned ex-partners who were abusing their intimate pictures.

Ways To Prevent Sextortion?

Prevention is the best defense against internet sextortion. Here’s how to minimize the risk when interacting with others online.

Don’t Send Intimate Photos or Videos

A sure-proof way to protect yourself is to not send explicit content to anyone you haven’t met in real life. Be especially careful if the person you’re chatting to seems adamant about switching to video chat.

Another red flag is if they keep trying to turn the conversation sexual despite your boundaries. They might even try to guilt trip you into sharing nudes.

Don’t Open Attachments From Strangers

This is a no-brainer. Never click on any suspicious links or attachments. They can include dangerous software, like keyloggers or malware that can control your webcam.

Cover or Turn Off Your Camera

Here’s a famous sextortion example from 2011

Luis Mijangos successfully hacked 230 victims. He spied on them using malware that could turn on webcams and microphones. The FBI found dozens of videos of people getting out of the shower, dressing, and having sex with their partners.

Spooky, right?

But it’s no reason to be paranoid.

Hackers can only use your cameras against you if you've installed malware (like Remote Access Trojans) or via vulnerability exploits. Still, you can keep your peace of mind by covering your webcam and selfie camera just in case.

Use Strong Passwords

If you ever receive a sextortion email saying you got hacked, chances are it got exposed in a data breach. Sometimes even your passwords get leaked.

Other than that, hackers can guess or brute force them using automated software. 

Here are some rules of thumb to prevent that:

  • Use a password manager to create strong and unique passwords.
  • Never reuse login credentials.
  • Never use passwords that are too obvious.
  • Switch to two-factor authentication.

Run a Background Check

Background checks are a must in the online world. So, how do you avoid getting catfished or falling for a sextortion scam?

Your first step should be a quick reverse image search. That will let you see if someone’s profile pic is real. If their avatar appears on someone else’s Instagram, something’s fishy.

Next, you should try to look them up on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. If you don’t have their full name, you can find them via their relatives, the city they live in, and even groups. Analyze how often they update their feed and who likes their posts

Use a VPN

VPNs are an extra security measure against internet sextortion. You should never log on to an account without one if you're on public WiFi. Otherwise, hackers could get a hold of your passwords, banking information, and browsing history.

But, on their own, VPNs can’t fully protect you. They need to be paired with antivirus programs, secure passwords, and a healthy sense of caution.

What Are the Consequences?

Sexual blackmail has long-lasting psychological consequences.

According to Thorn, one in four victims had to seek a medical or mental health professional. They reported feeling scared, anxious, and completely alone. They were even uprooted for fear of their safety. One in eight victims move from their homes. 

The perpetrators can also face severe charges for sexual extortion. Since it happens online and worldwide, they could potentially be charged with federal crimes. They can face up to 30 years in prison for sexual exploitation of a minor. 

Additionally, unauthorized access to a computer is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000.

What Can Parents Do?

It’s not easy being a parent in the digital age. The key is to strike a balance between vigilance and trusting your child:

  • Talk to them about their online friends: Regularly ask them about their day and what they’re up to.
  • Educate them about sextortion, including the meaning and examples: Discuss catfishing and other common threats so they can recognize them in time.
  • Make your children feel safe and accepted: Let them know they can always come forward to you without fear of judgment.

If your kid is underage and you have valid reasons to fear their safety, you can try parental control software.

How To Deal With Sextortion as a Victim?

You’re not alone and helpless if it happens to you.

The most important thing is not to panic and do what the blackmailer asks of you. Stop engaging them and take the following actions instead:

  • Tell someone close to you (or call a blackmail helpline): They can support you and help gather evidence.
  • Document conversations: Screenshot and save all communications to help your case.
  • Report it to the website: Fill out and submit a content removal form.
  • Press charges: Contact your local law enforcement and press charges.

Sextortion Laws

Sextortion is treated differently across the states. For example, Utah criminalizes and defines “sextortion” and “cyber-sexual extortion” as specific forms of blackmail. On the other hand, California doesn’t separate it from others. They’re all grouped under its extortion statute.

So, depending on the state, blackmailing for sex can be prosecuted under the following criminal statutes:

  • Extortion
  • Bribery
  • Sexual coercion
  • Computer hacking and wiretapping
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Breach of trust
  • Sexual assault
  • Child pornography
  • Corruption.

Where To Report Sextortion?

You can report sextortion to your local law enforcement office and the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Additionally, you can reach out to the social media platform where the crime happened:

  • On Twitter: Tap the three dots in the upper right corner of a tweet and select "It's abusive or harmful.”
  • On Snapchat: Press and hold the snap, then click the flag image.
  • On Facebook: Click the three dots in the upper right corner of a post to report the profile for Facebook sextortion.

Wrap Up

Sextortion is one of the most insidious forms of internet blackmail. What starts as a simple chat with someone new and exciting, can become a nightmare. It’s very easy to fall victim to it, mainly due to the sensitive nature of the situation. But, you should never face it alone and give in to your attacker.

Hopefully, now you know all about sextortion, including the meaning, how to protect yourself, and tackle it head-on.

Stay safe!

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Selma Citakovic

Selma Citakovic

Selma is a content writer with a love for all things nerdy by day and an internet archaeologist that likes to dig up obscurities by night. Mostly she's trying to balance between many obsessions. Right now, it's bass playing and reading hard sci-fi about vampires in outer space - next week, who knows.

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