Sextortion – online blackmail through sexual exposed imagery! Please don’t …

By @Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger and @Diana Selck

I. Sex…?! what? sextortion?

David Finkelhor amd Janis Wolak conducted a study with 1,631 participants between the age of 18 and 25-years and asked about their experience of becoming a victim of #sextortion. This study is the most extensive one that has been published regarding the phenomenon of sextortion and shows how the understanding of sextortion varies greatly.

Generally, #sextortion can be understood as a term that has been put together from the terms sex and extortion. Extortion in this case describes how an individual experiences extortion by means of sexual content. The understanding of extortion is not necessarily limited to the online world.  For example the case ‘Klatten’ can be classified as #sextortion.

II. Sextortion – please don’t!

In Germany, #sextortion is often considered as a specific modus operandi. According to this, the likelihood to become victims is higher for men – of any age group – in which very attractive women convince the victim to send via #sexting nude pictures of the victims genitals or live stream (often Skype) in front of a webcam while they perform sexual acts on themselves. In many cases, the attractive woman does not actual sit in front of the live stream in real time but is a video recording used by cyber criminals. While playing back the recording to the victim, cyber criminals write in the chat with the victim. A reporter from Switzerland recorded such a video and asked himself how the attractive woman can pose in front of the webcam and write at the same time, even though the posing does not include her using the keyboard to chat.

Criminals usually record the sexual act and upload the material, which is still on set on private and not accessible for the public, to a cloud server or a video platform such as YouTube. The victim often receives the link of the video along with the demand of a payment to be paid within a certain time frame. The payment method is often of virtual nature providing payment option in virtual currencies such as #ukash, #bitcoin, #westernunion or #paypal.

In order to find their victims, cyber criminals use the rather commonly existing digital narcissism. Due to a constantly self-presentation in social media – regardless of age – cyber criminals can practically choose their victims individually and use the given information for their own cause. This is especially true in the case of #romancescam, in which criminals use all given information to make the victim comply with their demands. Another way of finding victims is the mass of possible contacts online through social media platforms such as #Facebook, #Instagram, # Snapchat or similar accounts. For this purpose do cybercriminals use profiles of attractive women for #sextortion and successful businessmen for #romancescam. These profiles will be used to contact possible victims directly. After a certain time has passed, offenders often ask for #cybersex or digital #sexual activities. Cyber criminals often work collaboratively and are typically acting from abroad – most likely from African countries such as Nigeria. It is possible that these organised criminal groups act in the same way as in the field of phishing and spamming.

Noteworthy, due to the digital narcissism that can be experienced on a daily basis, sexuality has become an important part that can be increasingly experienced through digital space as well. In a way transferring experience of sexuality onto digital space, which is underlined by more and more cases of #sexting in schools or practiced by adults but also visible at an increasing number of digital sexual offences against minors.

Only a few weeks ago, Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger was attending the tv show of #Maischenberger talking about the phenomenon of #cybergrooming. Together with Arne Völker, who became victim of #sextortion in the narrowed sense, was the modus operandi of #sextortion impressively described. (Video in der Mediathek) 

III. #Revengeporn, #cybergrooming, #sexting, #sextortion, #romancescam – What exactly are we talking about and when?

The study of Finkelhor and Wolak show many interesting aspects of #sextortion, in the narrowed sense and wider sense.

According to their study did 60% of the victims knew their perpetrator in person and only 40% met online. This shows that #sextortion is understood under different modus operandi. The 60% that knew their perpetrator are describing the phenomenon on the basis of an interpersonal relationship between victim and offender and thus could also be mean #revengeporn. This is underlined by the studies results that show that 42% of the offenders blackmail their victims in order to be or re-gain a relationship with the victim.

At the same time, the most frequent goal of extorting a victim was to receive more sexual material through imagery or videos of the victim performing sexual activities (51%). In 70% of the cases, #sexting in form of pictures or videos was executed first, of which 72% of the victims sent it voluntarily, either due to their relationship or the perpetrator urged them to send sexual material (the latter by 52%). These mechanisms remind on psychological stages which are used for #cybergrooming, which in Germany is understood as the initiation of sexual abuse of children using the Internet. Cybergrooming only considers children as victims in accordance with the German criminal law § 176 Abs. 4 (3) and (4) StGB/ criminal law. In these cases, perpetrators are aiming to extort more illicit sexual material of the child, in order to pressure them into more abusive sexual acts. In some cases, the perpetrator records the child victim without its knowledge while the child complies to perform sexual activities in front of the webcam. Sometimes malicious malware or #spyware is used against children or adults to access and record their victims through the webcam or smartphones (also called RAT – remote administration tool). The above-mentioned study underlines this, stating that 45% of the victims did not know that they have been recorded.

Victims of #cybergrooming inherit often a greater proportion of female victims (75%) and a smaller part of male victims (25%). Finkelhor and Wolak show in their study that 83% of #sextortion victims were women, which is atypical regarding the general understanding of #sextortion in Germany. Additionally, 46% of #sextortion victims were younger than 17-years old and only 9% were extorting for money. This means that approx. 90% describes this kind of #sextortion.

The platform on which victim and perpetrator meet is similar in #sextortion and #cybergrooming cases. 54% of the criminals met their victims on #socialnetworksites, 41% contacted their victims through messengers (it would be interesting to know if messengers that enable an anonym username function such as #Kik or #Kakao are more frequent), 23% met through video chat platforms (most likely Skype or chatroulette), 9% had first contact on a dating app and 4% of the victims interacted with their perpetrator via #onlinegames.

IV. #Sextortion is not always #sextortion

Sextortion is not always sextortion. Finally, the possibility of varied forms of online crimes including acts of extortion for sexual material is evident and consequently needs to be addressed differently.

Which is what?

  • 1. Exclusively men are targeted by cyber criminals and are convinced though varied methods to create sexual material of themselves. This material is then used to blackmail the victims and demand money = sextortion in the narrowed sense.
  • 2. Within a relationship or a voluntarily act of #sexting between adolescents and/ or adults. Afterwards, one of them is extorted with the sent sexual material = sextortion in a wider sense.
  • 3. Sexting material that was exchanged while being in a relationship and is now published on varied online platforms in order to harm the ex-partner of the relationship that could lead to #cybermobbing = revenge porn.
  • 4.1 Perpetrator is influencing a child with the intention of abusing it sexually. Perpetrator build trust and forms a relationship with the child to meet it in person to sexually abuse it = cybergrooming in the narrowed sense.
  • 4.2 Perpetrator uses its influence on the child to receive illicit sexual material of the child in a very short period of time. Perpetrator uses the material to foster fear of exposure and the leading consequence of #cybermobbing to force the child to more heavier sexual abuse = cybergrooming in the wider sense, perpetrator extorts the child = sextortion in a wider sense.
  • 5. Perpetrator tries to gain trust of mostly women but in some cases men in order to make them comply through different dramatic stories to their demand for money = romance scam.

V. What now – safer #sexting?

Prevention is always a better solution than a late repression.

  • Sextortion in the narrowed sense as well as romance scam can be addressed with informing and education users and increasing #mediacompetence regarding these phenomena. Common sense is needed when facing situations online that seem overly promising. A practical advice when in doubt is to use the Google search function in order to verify one’s profile picture.
  • Sextortion in the wider sense also need to be addressed by informing and education individuals and thus teach media competence. It is important to consider that sexting as such is only a sexual act but not illegal, only if the material is used to blackmail or extort the victims is it considered illicit. Depending on the age of the victim, a variety of criminal acts can be put in to consideration. Simultaneously, schools need to address possibilities of educating students about #safersexting in digital space.
  • Cybergrooming, both in a wider and narrowed sense need to be included by the parents when educating their children about possible risks on the internet. At the same time, cybergrooming needs to be counteracted by means of the rule of law, which needs a new consideration of safety in digital space regarding the role of the police.

VI. A necessary universal classification

Consequently, the study and other analysis of the above-mentioned phenomena show that it becomes more and more difficult to compare and analyse these phenomena with a criminological perspective because of their global nature but their nationally bound definition and thus understanding. Therefore, further investigations and classifications are necessary to ensure the possibility of a universal terminology and thus an accordingly examination of sextortion.

This article is the result of a collaboration between Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger, a criminologist who has been researching and advocating the field of #digitalpolicing #cybercrime #cybergrooming #sextortion, #onlinegames and much more for many years and Diana Selck, who has been focusing in her master thesis on #onlineromancescam and #webcamblackmail as increasing phenomena online.

@source of picture geralt Pixabay CCO

Update: 21.10.2016

A very recent case from New Zealand shows the obstacles to classify sextortion. A sexual perpetrator pretended to be an under aged girl with the intention to convince the boys under the age of 13-years to send nude pictures of themselves. The perpetrator did not extort the boy for more sexual material and therefore it cannot be considered as #sextortion but #cybergrooming of an #onlineperpetrator that uses #sexting mechanism to receive illicit sexual material.

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