With texting, social media direct messaging, and apps like Snapchat—a mobile app where one person can send a photo to another that will “self-destruct” in a maximum of 10 seconds—it is easy to see how sexting has pushed its way to the forefront of technology-based communication. However, what if the person you’re messaging or snapping with isn’t who you think it is? What could the personal, intimate image you’re sending to your significant other mean if it fell into the wrong hands? When malicious people get their hands on these types of images, they can use them to extort more compromising images or demand payment with the threat of sending the existing images they have to your friends, family, or coworkers—this is the sexual-cybercrime known as sextortion.
Sextortion occurs when malicious online users obtain compromising images, usually posing as a young person who the victim may or may not think they know, or by hacking into a person’s webcam, which they then use to extort more compromising pictures or videos from the victim or sometimes even monetary payment with the threat of distributing the photos on the internet if the victim does not comply.
There are an expected 6,000+ cases of sextortion, many of which are not reported due to victims’ fear of their attackers exposing their intimate moments to the internet. The primary victims are young adults and minors. While women are the primary adult targets, these cyber-scum prey on both girls and boys under the age of 18, and unfortunately, minors make up a majority of the victims—a whopping 78% of total sextortion victims. One offender was able to trick and control 230 victims, 44 of which were minors. He would get the photos from the unsuspecting victims either by posing as their boyfriends or hacking into their webcams and unexpectedly spying on them. This behavior of having multiple victims is not uncommon due to the massive reach of the internet, making it that much easier for these predators to hook more unsuspecting people into their vicious schemes.
With sextortion becoming such a prevalent and common cybercrime, it is important to educate yourself and others on what signs indicate a sextortionist predator and ways to prevent becoming a sextortion statistic.
How to Prevent Becoming a Sextortion Victim
While there are good people out there working against sextortion on a grand scale, such as Mary Anne Franks of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative who advocates laws that would make distribution of explicit images without the consent of the person pictured illegal, regardless of how the images were obtained, there are some things you can do to help protect yourself from such a crime on an individual level:
Never send compromising photos to anyone, regardless of who you think they are—Even if the image is slightly compromising, sending images to people online and via phones is extremely risky with the increasing abilities of hackers and other malicious people on the internet.
Do not talk to people online who you do not know—again, this seems like an obvious statement, but just because someone appears to be interested in you for whatever reason online, adding people to your networks who you do not personally know is extremely dangerous and can open doors wide open for sextortion predators.
Cover your cameras when not in use—Hackers can gain access to virtually anything they set their minds to if it is poorly protected enough, and that includes your webcam. By placing a webcam cover or even a piece of tape over your webcam, you can prevent hackers from being able to spy on you, even if they can hack into your webcam. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who has been in a bit of hot water recently with his personal social media account breaches, covers his laptop webcam with a piece of tape. If he is worried about people watching him through that camera, you should be as well.
Make sure your computer’s cybersecurity is up-to-date—at least by updating your anti-virus software regularly and not going to any seedy websites, you can reduce the chances of hackers getting into your computer and taking your personal information that way. Most anti-viruses will even allow you to auto-update. Taking multiple steps in protecting your personal cybersecurity will only help you to be more and more secure.
Your personal cybersecurity is more important today than it has ever been, and prevention is key to protection, so make sure you take these precautionary steps to lessen the likelihood of potential attack. However, in the event that you do find that you or a loved one fall victim to online sextortion, you are not alone. Do not continue to send explicit photos to the attacker—that would only be more ammunition that they could potentially use against you. Instead, tell an authority figure about the incident and call the toll-free FBI number 1-800-CALL-FBI to alert them of this crime and hopefully stop this person from further blackmail of you and others.
Hailey Carlson, Marketing Intern, Axiom Cyber Solutions 6/28/2016