Tackling the Sextortion Epidemic

Tackling the Sextortion Epidemic

Tackling the Sextortion Epidemic

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Digital Forensics Corporation fights to protect and educate the public about a rapidly growing trend in cybercrime called sextortion, where online predators target teens and young adults with threats to expose sensitive personal photos.


Extortionists disguise their identities on social media platforms, claiming to have a revealing image or video which they will share unless the victim sends more images, pays money or performs lewd acts . These attacks claim the lives of many teenagers and cause immense anxiety, depression and financial loss to thousands of people.

Financial sextortion is on the rise, noted the US Department of Homeland Security’s sextortion webpage, which shares growing concerns from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) about the dangers to young victims of such cyberattacks. A recent analysis by this agency revealed that up to 79% of predators are looking for money rather than additional sexual images.

What differentiates this type of cyberattack from other extortion crimes is its connection to hacking, noted Digital Forensics public relations manager and former digital investigator Kenneth Kuglin. The aggressor has already had access to sexual material provided or stolen from the victim.

“Traditional sextortion occurs when a victim is threatened or blackmailed into providing more sexual images. The predator threatens to share the nude or sexual images with the public,” he told TechNewsWorld A much more common type these days is financial sextortion, where a predator demands money or gift cards in exchange for confidentiality of sexual content.

Sextortion more common than you think

Kuglin balked at the stereotypical use of the word “attacks” when associated with sextortion. This word is not the best to describe the techniques used by criminals.

“Rather than imagining a hacker being able to access your cloud and access private photos, the overwhelming majority of sextortion cases involve social engineering,” he countered. “The abuser manipulates the victims into sending the images on purpose, through catfishing techniques, posing as someone the victim would like to be intimate with, and then later reveals his blackmail intentions.”

Law enforcement is seeing a growing increase in the prevalence of sextortion since the 2020 global pandemic. According to the FBI, more than 7,000 reports of sextortion took place in 2022.

Thorn, an organization focused on combating child sexual abuse, conducted a survey in 2017 which found that 33% of sextortion victims in the study had not told anyone out of shame or embarrassment.

“Digital Forensics has seen a massive increase in sextortion-related cases since 2020. Our team of digital analysts reported that at least 70% of the cases they handled were sextortion-related in 2022,” Kuglin offered. .

Efficient modus operandi

Cybercriminals typically operate online through various social media platforms, dating apps and messaging services to target vulnerable people, such as teenagers or young adults, he explained.

“Very often we see a pattern where these criminals contact a victim on one platform and then ask them to move on to a second or even a third that uses encrypted messaging, making it harder to track their crimes.” , Kuglin said.

Although sextortionists may operate independently, they often work within an organized group or network that oversees their activities. These organizations are located in different parts of the world, making it difficult for law enforcement to track them down and bring them to justice.

“Employers in these sextortion empires provide their employees with resources such as a laptop and media to use to create fake profiles, and in return, will take a cut of the profits that employees gain through sextortion” , he observed.

Skilled crooks

Sextortionists use various tactics to target their victims and obtain sexually explicit images or videos. The methods are particularly effective in trapping unconscious youngsters.

One tactic is to post personal ads on platforms such as Craigslist or Reddit, where they claim to seek privacy to coerce victims into responding. A similar scheme is to create fake profiles on online dating sites such as Tinder or Ashley Madison.

Another method employed by cyber sex criminals is to directly contact potential victims on social networks such as Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat with fake profiles designed to match a target’s erotic interests.

With potential targeted victims in view, sextortionists send unsolicited nude or explicit content to their targets via private messaging. In some cases, criminals may immediately threaten a target’s friends or family in an attempt to obtain sexual material without any prior contact with the potential victim.

“Pornographic content is associated with decreased gray matter in the prefrontal cortex compared to baseline, and this tactic is intended to decrease a target’s decision-making ability,” Kuglin noted.

Take advantage of the result

The goal is to acquire sexually explicit material from a victim. Then the suspect uses it as leverage to coerce the victim into providing more explicit information or complying with financial demands.

Threatening to share the images with the victim’s friends and family or post them publicly online is a common threat. Sextortionists sometimes create websites dedicated to shaming a victim.

In order to increase the pressure on the victim, sextortionists often send screenshots of the victim’s friend list or other personal information to demonstrate their access to the victim’s social network.

“It can be an incredibly harrowing experience, as it not only exposes their intimate material, but also puts their reputations and personal relationships at risk,” Kuglin said.

Local law enforcement often ill-prepared

An unfortunate reality of the current situation is that most local police stations and municipalities have little training or equipment to properly track or engage with suspects in blackmail dealings, given the expedient nature of such cases, noted Kuglin.

Since most sextortion cases come from outside the United States, there is often nothing police and local authorities can do to help victims.

“That said, it’s still important to start a documentation trail because reports of sextortion can help future legislation,” Kuglin urged.

Victims should file a report with local authorities and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3). He advised that these measures would help document the severity of this online epidemic.

Help and advice for victims of sextortion

If a minor is involved, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678). Take It Down is a free service offered by NCMEC that can help remove or stop the online sharing of sexually explicit images or videos taken of victims before they turn 18.

Above all, the victims must not comply with the demands of the blackmailer, according to Kuglin. Once a sextortionist receives funds from a target, his threats will always increase in volume as he now has the certainty of his influence over the victim.

Another response strategy is to reach out to a close friend or family member to help the victim deal with the emotional strain of this experience. He suggested contacting his company’s team of specialists who have years of experience in solving cases with these types of criminals.

“When a victim comes to us with a case of sextortion, the case specialist will work quickly to assess the situation and develop a plan of action,” he offered. This involves gathering evidence, such as chat logs or emails, and resuming correspondence with the criminal by impersonating the customer and gathering evidence against the criminal.

“Our team also works with select overseas law enforcement teams and other authorities to ensure that the author removes material from our clients,” Kuglin said.

Digital Forensics manages the immediate threat and continues to monitor customer accounts to ensure they are still protected if they wish. The company informs and educates customers so that this does not happen again.

“Most importantly, we’re giving them a chance to talk about what happened in a place without judgment, which is huge for a lot of people,” he noted.

How to Avoid Sextortion

The most effective way to avoid sextortion is obvious, Kuglin joked. Never share nude or intimate photos online, especially with strangers, and better yet, not at all.

Recognize the red flags and manipulative techniques that sextortionists may use to try to get you to violate this covenant. Kuglin recommends these online best practices:

  • Be careful when interacting with strangers online: Avoid sharing personal information or explicit material, especially with people you don’t know and trust.
  • Use social media privacy settings: Adjust the privacy settings of your social media accounts to limit who can see your posts and personal information.
  • Don’t move conversations to other platforms: Avoid moving conversations to a more private platform, as this can make it easier for sextortionists to exert control and pressure.
  • Report suspicious activity: If someone makes threats or demands or behaves suspiciously, report it to the relevant authorities or the platform you are using.

“It is important to note that these are just a few examples of the tactics sextortionists can use. They are constantly evolving their methods to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and other authorities, making it crucial for individuals to remain vigilant and cautious when interacting with people online, Kuglin concluded. .


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