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Sextortion: A Growing Concern for Schools

21/03/24
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Trigger warning: This article references sexual assault, child abuse, and suicide.

Sexual extortion or ‘sextortion’ is the most rapidly growing crime targeting children in Australia. This article explores how schools and communities can protect students from online sextortion scams.

 

What Is Sextortion?

Sexual extortion or ‘sextortion’ involves victims – usually children – being coerced into sending nude or sexual photos of themselves to online offenders, who then extort them to send money, with the threat of distributing the images, including to the victim’s family and friends. Financial sextortion is the most rapidly growing crime targeting children in Australia, the United States and Canada. The Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) receives roughly 300 reports of sextortion targeting children each month, however, AFP Commander for Human Exploitation Helen Schneider estimates “only one in 10 report it”.

Cybercriminals often pose as an attractive young person to target victims through social media and gaming apps and online dating sites. The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI), a non-profit organisation studying online crime and extremism, reports that almost all the financial sextortion targeting young people today is directly related to an overseas cybercriminal group called the Yahoo Boys. Within the past 18 months, there has been an exponential increase in sextortion incidents, a direct result of the Yahoo Boys distributing instructional scripts and videos on YouTube, TikTok and Scribd, facilitating other criminals to engage in financial sextortion. These criminals target high schools, universities, and youth sports teams with fake accounts, so that these young people believe that they are corresponding with someone their own age interested in a romantic relationship. Cybercriminals employ advanced emerging technologies including generative artificial intelligence to coerce victims to share nude photos of themselves. According to Snapchat’s internal data, roughly a third of teenagers approached by a sextortion criminal ultimately send an intimate photo, resulting in a blackmail incident.

The NCRI reports Instagram as the most common vector that cybercriminals use to target their young victims. Instagram’s design allows cybercriminals to easily access victims’ following and followers lists and exert leverage over them by threatening to send the compromising photos to people they know. Scammers can gain access to a user’s personal network immediately through a public account on Instagram, or, for a private account, as soon as the user accepts the scammer’s follow request. Sextortion criminals who haven’t instantaneously received their victim’s payments have infiltrated people databases and data aggregators to find their victim’s address, photos of their house, phone number, or interrogated relatives and known contacts.

Snapchat is the most used social media platform in coercing victims into sending an intimate photo, as cybercriminals exploit Snapchat’s platform design which provides a false sense of security to the victim that their photos will disappear and not be screenshot. Although an encouraging step in the right direction, trending teen dating app Wizz, which in a recent poll saw 40 per cent of its users being sextorted, 77 per cent of them minors, was removed from the Apple app store and Google Play in early February.

 

Why Is Sextortion a Problem?

Sextortion scammers often begin with a single demand, “transfer me the money now and the photos will be deleted”. Cybercriminal groups (such as the Yahoo Boys) are financially motivated and adopt these sextortion-at-scale operations as a primary method of financial gain. Scammers demand to be paid through bank transfers, cryptocurrency transfers, peer-to-peer payment apps and gift cards. According to the NCRI, once the victim pays, it is common for the scammer to demand repeat payments, often through scheduled weekly payment plans.

More concerning are the mental wellbeing concerns for vulnerable children involved in sextortion, with self-harm and suicide ascribed to sextortion both in Australia and overseas. The NCRI attributes at least 21 youth suicides to this sextortion surge, although this is likely an underreporting due to the shame, fear and confusion children feel when they are trapped in this cycle of abuse, preventing them from reaching out for help or reporting the crime.

Unlike the well-researched impacts of corruption and sexual abuse, the impact and costs of sextortion are scantly documented. Transparency International, a global NGO working to expose corruption, published a report on sextortion which unveils anecdotal evidence suggesting that past sextortion victims have suffered alarming consequences. These include “dropping out of school, pregnancy, leaving a well-paid job, enduring abuse with physical and psychological effects, or missing out on public services to avoid exposure to further abuse.” The risk of this irreparable harm grows as the exploitation grows with the rapid advances in technology.

Remarkably, Ms Schneider reports that “90 per cent of [sextortion] victims … are boys or young boys”. A recent article in the Australian reported that the “Kids’ Helpline said on Thursday it was fielding a call every day from a teenager targeted through sextortion, with callers typically boys aged 14-19. Calls for help soared from five per month in 2020, to more than 30 calls per month in the past year”.

Tiana Sharifi, the CEO of Canadian-based Exploitation Education Institute attributes this partiality to the stigma surrounding male victims of sexual exploitation, wherein “we don't typically raise our males with the idea that they can be sexually abused themselves, [such] that they can be predated on. So when they're on things like gaming platforms or social media websites, they have their guards down more.” Once these young boys cede inappropriate photos of themselves - often child abuse material - over to scammers, they are told that the sharing of these photos will see them expelled from school, accountable for criminal charges, unable to attend college or be recruited for the military, or that their parents will lose their jobs.

 

What Is the Current State of Things?

The ACCCE constructed an in-depth Research Report into online child sexual exploitation, with survey participants including parents and carers, educators, health professionals, and older siblings of children and young people. The report found that only 52 per cent of participants talk to their children about online safety, and 20 per cent would not feel comfortable talking to their children about child sexual exploitation. The report also observed that 80 per cent of four-year-olds are using the internet, and 30 per cent of these very young children have access to their own device.

When children have unfettered access to the internet and adult supervision is at best mediocre and at worst disengaged, a community-level shift around understanding the risks of online sextortion must occur.

 

What Can Your School Do?

Schools and their staff owe a duty to take care of students from risks of harm and injury that should have been reasonably foreseen. This ensures a safe and positive learning environment, including protecting students from the risks associated with technology usage associated with the school.

Strategies to overcome online sextortion must be preventative, as it can rapidly escalate and is much more complicated to stop once it has already begun. Conversations around sextortion need to be destigmatised, ensuring that victims feel safe enough to talk with someone [they] trust, like a close friend, teacher or parent, as advised by Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram. A whole-of-community response, including teachers, parents, and families, is needed to protect children and young people from sextortion before it happens, through open discussions about cyber safety.

Staff can facilitate the cyber safety of students by always modelling appropriate online behaviour, referring any cyber safety-related issues to the principal or deputy principal, and encouraging and supporting parents/carers to speak with the school if they believe that their child is being bullied or harassed online. Practical methods of implementing cyber safety in schools could include printing cyber safety strategies into students’ school diaries, displaying cyber safety posters within the school (such as the ACCCE’s informative sextortion posters), and participating in relevant cyber safety-related events. Furthermore, schools should be particularly conscious of cyber safety around sextortion in relation to male students and highlight in any student training the over-represented targeting of teenage boys through sextortion.

School’s cyber safety strategies should include the regular provision of information to parents/carers to raise awareness of cyber safety. Schools can prompt parents/carers to have conversations about online risks with their children, counselling them to not share intimate photos with anyone, particularly a stranger online. Most importantly, children should understand that, if an incident does happen, they are safe coming to their parents/carers or teachers for help. This regular provision of information from schools to parents/carers provides them with the tools for recognising cyber safety risks affecting their children. Schools can provide parents/carers with clear paths for raising any concerns of cyber safety directly with the school. Further general cyber safety strategies are outlined in a recent School Governance article.

 

Other Recommended Tips for Students and Parents/Carers

  • Students should refrain from engaging in sexually explicit activities online, such as exchanging compromising photos or videos. Students should be aware that even in apps like Snapchat, any photos which supposedly ‘disappear’ can also be saved and screenshot.
  • The US Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Sextortion Brochure provides ‘red flags’ young people can use to identify sextortion scammers. These include if the user messages with poor grammar and sentence structure or urges the person to engage in sexually explicit video chat or photographing almost immediately after ‘friending’ the person or initiating contact.
  • Students should adjust privacy settings on social media accounts to limit information available to strangers. Parents/carers can ensure that their children are aware that on Instagram there are criminal accounts posing as youth, and therefore students should exercise caution when accepting ‘friend’ requests or communicating with strangers online.
  • Students and parents/carers should avoid downloading apps, files or email attachments from unverified sources, and ensure that all antivirus software is up to date.
  • If a student realises that they are involved in a sextortion scam, they should immediately block and report the account and never pay, as succumbing to blackmail threats tends to result in further extortion. Taking screenshots or saving messages can be used as evidence for law enforcement.

 Cybercrime can be reported to the police or the eSafety Commissioner at esafety.gov.au. In instances of victims under 18, which automatically constitute child sexual abuse, victims can report the crime to investigators at the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation at accce.gov.au/report.

 

 

 

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About the Author

Alice Knox

Alice Knox is a Content Services Assistant at Ideagen. She is currently a student at the University of Sydney.

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