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Sextortion

Updated: MAY 16, 2023
Reviewed by Dr. Sunny Rodgers
on June 3, 2023

Sextortion is a crime in which someone threatens to distribute nude or sexual images or video footage of their victim unless their demands are met. This crime is a type of blackmail. Sextortion is short for sexual extortion.

Sextortionists can work alone or in teams. They may contact their victims by friending or messaging them on social media, dating or gaming apps, or websites. They may also contact them directly via email. They may create a fake profile using images of an attractive person to catfish their victims and pretend they're interested in finding a relationship or hookup. They may also flirt with their victims to gain their trust, affection or interest. Once they have established a connection, they may ask their victim to send nudes or videos of themselves masturbating. They may also ask their victims to stream explicit video of themselves. They record or download this content to blackmail their victim.

Sextortionists may also use malware to hack into their victim’s devices and gain access to their systems. They may download explicit files or control their victim’s microphone or web camera to access private, intimate content.

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Once sextortionists have their victim's intimate content, they usually threaten to share it with the victim’s loved ones, coworkers, or the wider online community unless their demands are met. They may also threaten to harm a victim’s family members or friends. There are two types of sextortion:

  • Traditional sextortion sees sextortionists demanding sexual images or sexual favors.
  • Financial sextortionists demand financial gain such as money, gift cards, game credit or cryptocurrency.

Some sextortionists may make threats without having intimate content or access to their victim’s devices. These sextortionists claim to have this explicit content or device access and hope their victims will feel concerned enough to meet their demands.

Sextortion is a growing problem, with cases involving child teen, and adult victims growing between 2021 and 2023. FBI statistics say law enforcement agencies received more than 7,000 reports of the sextortion of minors alone in 2022. Actual cases are likely to be much higher as most go unreported. In February 2023, the FBI issued a joint statement with law enforcement agencies in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand claiming that sextortion is a global crisis.

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More About Sextortion

Sextortion typically lasts for several days to several weeks after a sextortionist makes their first threat. They may give up sooner if their victim cuts off contact. This is especially true of sextortionists who target many people at once, as they are more likely to focus their efforts on the most engaged victims.

Robert Siciliano, a security awareness expert, writer and CEO of Safr.me and ProtectNow, recommends reporting all sextortion threats to a local law enforcement agency or cybercrime unit. As sextortion cases often cross state lines, they may recommend reporting the case to the FBI.

"It helps law enforcement in investigating the crime and potentially identifying the perpetrator, who likely has multiple victims. It helps to create a record of the incident, which can be valuable for legal or investigative reasons," he explained. "Reporting raises awareness about the issue, who's doing it, their tactics etc., and contributes to the collective effort in combating sextortion. In some cases, it allows authorities to provide support and resources to victims, ensuring they receive the necessary assistance from healthcare professionals during such distressing situations."

Can you just ignore sextortion?

Some sextortionists will stop harassing victims who ignore them, but this isn’t always the case. They may escalate the harassment and cause victims undue stress. Sextortionists may also move on to other victims unless they’re apprehended. For these reasons, it’s always best to report sextortion rather than ignore it. Giving in to a sextortionist is never the best option, as this often encourages them to make further demands. They may also release images or video footage from their victim anyway, even after receiving payment.

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How can I avoid sextortion?

People can reduce their risk of becoming a victim of sextortion by being careful about who they interact with online. According to Siciliano, they can also take the following measures as a precaution:

  • Posting privately on social media to reduce the number of people who can access a user’s information.
  • Carefully considering friendship requests and refusing to share personal information, images and videos.
  • Verifying that links or attachments in emails are legitimate before interacting with them, and using two-step authentication and private, unique, and hard-to-guess passwords.
  • Turning off laptops and devices and covering webcams when they’re not in use.
  • Using security software and regularly updating all programs, so they have the latest security measures.

When making new connections online, users should be cautious around anyone who expresses intense emotions quickly or pressures them to send nudes or explicit content. They should also be wary even around people they think they know, as sextortionists may claim to be someone that they’re not. When getting flirty online, it’s best to take nude photos or explicit videos from the neck down in case it’s ever distributed. Encrypted email services and messaging apps also protect against sextortion, as they prevent recipients from sharing message content.

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