Sextortion crimes are on the rise, increasing at an especially alarming rate during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this article, we will provide an overview of what sextortion is, the relevant law, and steps that can be taken to avoid being a victim.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion is an invasive form of extortion which occurs when a perpetrator threatens to release explicit images of an individual unless they are given ransom – usually money, explicit images, or sexual favors.i The perpetrator threatens to publish private videos or photos online or share them with friends, family members, or colleagues. They use fear to coerce individuals into paying them in exchange for not releasing intimate photos, videos, or media. Sextortion falls under the broader umbrella of extortion.ii Sextortion is sometimes referred to as cyber harassment, online harassment, extortion, online extortion, webcam blackmail, internet blackmail, and web sextortion.
What Laws Cover Sextortion?
Although sextortion is a crime in the United States, there is no governing law at the federal level. Legislation, such as the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act of 2019 (“SHIELD Act”) has been introduced, but federal laws primarily rely on other non-specific statutes which cover online aspects of the crime.iii According to the Brookings Institution study, several federal statutes have been used to prosecute sextortion activity, particularly those involving child victims.iv Across states, there is wide variance in the law regarding sextortion. Sextortion crimes are often tried under various criminal statutes: extortion, computer hacking, wiretapping, breach of trust, bribery, sexual coercion, corruption, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, or child pornography.v Under California law, extortion is a felony offense. According to California Penal Code section 518: “(a) Extortion is the obtaining of property or other consideration from another, with his or her consent, or the obtaining of an official act of a public officer, induced by a wrongful use of force or fear, or under color of official right…” Section (b) goes on to define “consideration” as “anything of value, including sexual conduct…”
How to Protect Yourself Against Sextortion
Not only are children targets, but older Americans are also being targeted. Several steps can be taken to protect against sextortion. Some of these steps include:
- avoid sending private content via phone, tablet, or computer;
- set social media accounts to private;
- do not open emails or attachments from strangers;
- regularly monitor bank accounts and credit reports for suspicious activity;
- use strong passwords and avoid using the same password for multiple websites;
- never give out personal information via email;
- adjust social media security settings to provide the highest level of protection before entering personally identifiable information on a website; and
- ensure websites are accessed using “https” or the status bar displays a “lock” icon.vi
Additionally, there are different strategies which may be implemented to protect children from cybercriminals. Those strategies include, but are not limited to:
- using parental controls;
- not permitting children to use devices unsupervised;
- monitoring online activity;
- not permitting them to have their own devices;
- not letting them prevent parental controls;
- knowing the applications and social networks used; and
- staying connected as a “friend” on social networks.
Significant Increase in Sextortion During Lockdown
Global social distancing measures are now in place around the world. This has led to a significant increase in the use of online communications by public authorities, businesses, and individuals. According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, there was an increase in the number of reports of online extortion scams during the current COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.vii Crimes such as online fraud, extortion, online sexual abuse of children, and ransom software to compromise systems such as hospitals, have been on the rise, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.viii
Cybercriminals have become sophisticated in their criminality to exploit the social, legal, and psychological nuances associated with COVID-19. School-aged children, who are the new and more frequent users of the internet, are being targeted by online sex offenders more frequently. Many internet users are simply unaware of the threats that exist and unfortunately, tend to take more risks with their exposure online, as opposed to when they are in person at work or school. In addition, people are turning to newer and trending apps and software for online communication and entertainment.ix
The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative provides helpful advice in its Guide for Legislators, including guidance on mens rea, intent, types of images covered, first amendment protections, and liability for downstream distributors.x Sextortion can be fought against by educating the public, especially children and teens, about the potential dangers online, especially cyber-sextortion. Schools and districts nationwide should incorporate sextortion awareness in their internet safety curricula and monitor sextortion offenders.xi
i Anna Brown, Sextortion Definition, Sextortion Emails and Help, Rexxfield, https://www.rexxfield.com/sextortion-definition-sextortion-emails-and-help/, May 28, 2020.
ii Alessandra Carlton, Sextortion: The Hybrid “Cyber-Sex” Crime, North Carolina Journal of Law and Technology, https://scholarship.law.unc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1408&context=ncjolt, March 1, 2020).
iii Sextortion – Should It Be a Federal Crime?, HG.org, https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/sextortion-should-it-be-a-federal-crime-53756, May 2, 2021.
v Sextortion – Should It Be a Federal Crime?, supra.
vi Jennifer Bridges, Internet Extortion: How to Prevent it and the Best Ways to Respond to It, https://www.reputationdefender.com/blog/privacy/internet-extortion-how-to-prevent-it-and-the-best-ways-to-respond-to-it, March 16, 2021.
vii Online Extortion Scams Increasing During the Covid-19 Crisis, Alert Number I-042020-PSA, https://www.ic3.gov/Media/Y2020/PSA200420, April 20, 2020.
viii Preventing Sextortion: A New Internet Crime on the Rise During COVID-19, UNODC, https://www.unodc.org/westandcentralafrica/en/2020-09-22-sextortion-cyber-crime.html, September 20, 2020.
ix Preventing Sextortion: A New Internet Crime on the Rise During COVID-19, supra.
x Mary Anne Franks, Drafting An Effective “Revenge Porn” Law: A Guide for Legislators, https://www.cybercivilrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Guide-for-Legislators-9.16.pdf, September 22, 2016).