As discussed in a previous post about phenomenology of sextortion and its hybrid forms, terminology and defining sextortion faces some challenges. First of all, sextortion is often referred to by media but might be something else entirely such as revenge porn (which means someone you know published very intimate pictures or videos of you to harm you and/or take revenge – read more about it here); or cyber aggressions (which intends to harm someone repeatedly through ICTs, often amongst peers); or even to receive and exchange child pornography resulting from sexting (which means individuals of all age groups exchange nude pictures). Sexting can either be initiated by peer-to-peer fellows or child groomer, who lure children into sending sexual pictures and in some cases for the purpose of sexual abuse (online or offline).
Secondly, sextortion is sometimes termed synonymously as webcam blackmail, which at a closer look is not the same phenomenon. Another challenge is that sextortion is often only analysed as a cybercrime that affects children and adolescents, other age groups are rarely considered. The reason for this might be, the focus of the person who reports or research the topic. If we look from an aggressive-behaviour-online/ online-harassment / cyber-mobbing perspective children and adolescents are almost exclusively considered when discussing offenders and victims. Looking from a cyber-grooming / child-pornography / sex-offender/ online-paedophilia perspective, adults are the offenders and children and adolescent are the targets and thus victims. Recent media reports have told stories about men being target by scammers from abroad extorting their victims for money, which means adults are the targeted victims and the offenders (children and adolescents would not have enough money to send ‘ransom’ to their scammers). And another, rather ignored perspective and thus a new offender group are hackers who use technological tools to access victims devices such as mobile phone, tablet or laptop or watch their victims online and screenshot them at the right moment as in the case of Amanda Todd, who flashed on a social media platform and was then screenshoted and blackmailed afterwards (watch the documentary about the case – here). Consequently, there is a need to categorise sextortion and webcam blackmail as a crime regarding its modus operandi as well as the cybercriminals and their motivation.
Webcam blackmail vs. Sextortion
But what is the difference between the two? It is actually not a difference that should be considered here but the hierarchy. Sextortion means that someone is extorting an individual in order to receive financial gain or more illicit sexual material, simply put extortion + sex = sextortion. All of the above mentioned perspectives included. If we keep all of this in mind, there are varied forms of sextortion occurrences – both initiated through video chat and thus webcam or through messenger and chat and thus sexting.
I created this model in the beginning of my research, wondering if sextortion occurrences could be differentiated according to the fact that victim and offender know each other and thus motivation is either humiliation and thus personal harm or extorting for money and sexual material of which victim and offender have never met before. This difference of occurrences is still valid but does not show that sextortion can be both – personally harmful or purely money digging or receiving more sexual images. Webcam blackmail on the hand is overwhelmingly used to receive money or sexual material. It is operated through webcam and thus excludes sexting and revenge porn.
Webcam blackmail as an under category of sextortion
In comparison to sextortion amongst youth, victims of webcam blackmail are often male, a majority middle-aged and working (the data is from my research). Victims of webcam blackmail were either looking actively on dating websites or dating apps or were contacted by a very attractive woman through social media platforms. In fact, after reading around 100 reports of victims, a certain strategy of cybercriminals was evident. First, victims were contacted or contacted themselves other attractive individuals online. Some victims stated that they were in a certain emotional state and therefore more vulnerable than others. Vulnerabilities were loneliness, stressful working lives, lack of sexual contact in current relationships or a habit to watch pornography and cam shows online.
Sometimes you do things out of pity for yourself, or sadness, or just that you want someone to talk to, yet looking online on shaddy webcam sites, such as omegle, cha- troullete are not places to find someone you can genuinely trust. (#Anonym)
Soon after the first contact, the blackmailer convinced the victim to move to a video platform in order to do cybersex (e.g. do a webcam show, show yourself naked, masturbate in front of the webcam). Sometimes when victims would be reluctant to expose in front of the webcam, blackmailers would offer “I show your mine, if you show me yours”. The attractive girl would then start to undress, stop at one point and asked the victim to do the same – which they complied to in almost all of the cases.
For the blackmailer Facebook is one important component for the blackmail itself. If victim and offender have not met on Facebook but a dating website, they will start asking for the victims’s Facebook details soon after. The reason for this is that blackmailer extract the victim’s contact and friends list from Facebook and use this list to raise the pressure of the blackmail. After a short time of cybersex, many victims faced their own friends list from Facebook together with a prepared blackmail message including their recording video from a few minutes ago, showing them in their most intimate moment. Consequently, forming a triangle of social media platforms that are essential for the success of the blackmail.
Almost all of the webcam blackmail cases were initiated from abroad, mentioning Western Union addresses from Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco and Philippines. Sextortion on the other hand can be local from your social circle or abroad from a stranger online.
In a broader understanding, webcam blackmail can be understood as sextortion, which then defines webcam blackmail as something that one individual or group extorts money or more sexual material from another individual and thus webcam blackmail is an under category of sextortion, only it is more specific about the tools (webcam, video chat) cybercriminals are using.
Findings from my master thesis ‘Online flirting – too god to be true – an investigation of victimisation through romance scam and webcam blackmail’ – a qualitative study. The research was conducted during a time period of seven month in online forums that focus on online victimisation.