What is sextortion and why is it on the rise?
Sextortion is a form of cyber-enabled extortion that involves the threat of sharing sexual information, images or videos with others, whether they exist or not. The perpetrators often coerce or manipulate their victims into sending them explicit photos or videos, or perform sexual acts on a webcam, and then demand money or more material to prevent exposure. Sextortion can have devastating consequences for the victims, such as emotional distress, anxiety, depression, shame, isolation and even suicide.
According to Police Scotland, cases of sextortion have increased significantly across the country, especially during the lockdown period when more people were using online platforms and apps to communicate and meet new people. Between January and August 2020, 283 crimes of sextortion were recorded, an increase of 44% on the same period in 2019, when 196 offences were reported. The youngest victim was aged just 10, while the oldest was 85. The majority of the victims (64% or 182) were aged 25 and under, and most of them were male (60%).
How are the police and other agencies responding to sextortion?
Police Scotland has launched a campaign to raise awareness of sextortion and to encourage victims to come forward and report the incidents. Assistant Chief Constable Pat Campbell said: “Becoming a victim of extortion is devastating particularly if the extortion involves the threat of sexual exposure. […] We want people to be aware of the risks and stay safe online. […] If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sextortion please contact the police. Every report will be treated seriously, sensitively and you will be treated with respect.”
Police Scotland has also provided some advice and information on how to prevent being a victim of sextortion and what to do if it happens. Some of the tips include:
- Be extremely cautious about online contacts and chat. Don’t give out your personal details, be sceptical of anyone wishing to move the conversation to another platform, and do not give anyone the chance to exploit or blackmail you.
- Don’t panic if you are being blackmailed. Contact your local police and internet service provider immediately. The police will take your case seriously, will deal with it in confidence and will not judge you for being in this situation.
- Don’t communicate with the criminals. Cut all communication with them and take screenshots of all your communication. Suspend your social media accounts (but do not delete them) and report the matter to the online platforms you used. You can also get the video blocked when reporting it and set up an alert in case the video resurfaces.
- Don’t pay the blackmailers. Many victims who have paid have continued to get more demands for higher amounts of money. In some cases, even when the demands have been met, the offenders will still go on to post the explicit videos. If you have already paid, check to see if the money has been collected. If it has, and if you are able, then make a note of where it was collected from. If it hasn’t, then you can cancel the payment and the sooner you do that the better.
Police Scotland is also working with other agencies and organisations to tackle sextortion and support the victims. For example, it has partnered with Victim Support Scotland, a charity that provides free and confidential help to anyone affected by crime. Victim Support Scotland has a dedicated helpline (0800 160 1985) and a website (Victim Support Scotland) where victims of sextortion can access emotional and practical support, such as counselling, advocacy, safety planning and legal advice.
Another organisation that is involved in the fight against sextortion is the National Crime Agency (NCA), which is the UK’s lead agency for tackling serious and organised crime. The NCA has a specialist unit called the Anti-Kidnap and Extortion Unit (AKEU), which deals with cases of online blackmail and extortion, including sextortion. The AKEU works closely with the police and other partners to identify and disrupt the criminal networks behind sextortion, and to protect and assist the victims. The NCA also runs a website (Thinkuknow) that provides education and advice on how to stay safe online, especially for children and young people.
What can the public do to help prevent and combat sextortion?
The public can play a vital role in preventing and combating sextortion by being aware of the risks, following the advice from the police and other agencies, and reporting any incidents or suspicions to the authorities. The public can also help by spreading the word and raising awareness of sextortion among their friends, family and community. By doing so, they can help to reduce the stigma and shame that often prevent victims from seeking help, and to create a culture of support and solidarity.
Sextortion is a serious and growing crime that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, background or location. It is important to remember that sextortion is not the fault of the victim, and that there is help and hope available. By working together, we can stop the criminals from exploiting and harming innocent people, and make the online world a safer and happier place for everyone.