Sexuality in Conversation

Sextortion, the Newest Form of Catfishing

Mark was going through a rough time in his life when he turned to the internet for an escape. His business was undergoing financial difficulties, and his wife had been battling a series of health problems. Although Mark was feeling lonely and sexually unfulfilled, he never imagined an online flirtation would make him the victim in a growing internet crime known as sextortion.

A form of blackmail, the Federal Bureau of Investigation classifies sextortion as “a situation in which someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them with images of a sexual nature, sexual favors or money.” By assuming the identity of an attractive man or woman, the perpetrator enters into an online relationship with the victim and after gaining their trust, persuades them to exchange nude photos or sexual videos. The victim is then told if they don’t send the perpetrator money, the images will be released to the victim’s family, friends and employer.

Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn-based attorney who is considered a pioneer in the field of sexual privacy, says she’s seen an uptick in the number of male victims who seek her legal services. “Men by far outnumber the victims of online extortion that we see at our firm,” Goldberg says. “The most common male victim profile is that of a highly successful married man, who has masturbated in front of a camgirl or Skyped with a stranger and been filmed without consent.”

Goldberg says the offender then uses the internet to determine the victim’s identity and threatens to expose him publicly if he does not pay.  “The offender can get a lot of information about their target from mainstream social media accounts,” she says. “By seeing a person’s friend list or followers, they know exactly who to threaten to send the humiliating material to.”

Terry Evans, president of Cybersleuth Investigations, which helps victims of cybercrimes find resolution, says the sextortion victims he’s helped have been intelligent, successful men who were going through a vulnerable time. They don’t realize that what seems like a casual online sexual encounter has the potential to ruin their lives. “We know more men are being targeted in sextortion scams, but it’s impossible to determine the exact number, since victims often blame themselves, and are ashamed to report incidents to the police,” Evans says. “These perps are typically criminal gangs that are based overseas, and who research and target male victims of all ages, based on their vulnerabilities and financial resources.”

Evans says these criminals are savvy professionals, primarily based in the Philippines, Nigeria and Algiers, that seek men with good incomes and exploitable vulnerabilities. They find their targets on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, dating sites or porn sites. “I believe part of the reason we’re seeing an increase in male sextortion victims is that perpetrators have learned men require less of a time investment,” says Evans, who has a background in cybersecurity and serves as a liaison between law enforcement and victims of sextortion. “While women often require months of grooming in order to gain their trust, men frequently provide revenue within 48 hours.”

And for the victims who blame themselves, Evans insists sextortion is not their fault. “Bad choices don’t make someone responsible for being subjected to criminal behavior,” he says.
While women often require months of grooming in order to gain their trust, men frequently provide revenue within 48 hours.
Mark, 61, a Chicago-based business owner, first saw the profile of “Sarah” as he was scrolling through the Kik app one night. He remembers being intrigued. Her profile photo showed an attractive young woman standing in front of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. A frequent visitor to the city, Mark sent her a friendly message. Sarah quickly replied, and the two began exchanging texts and photos while chatting about their lives. “It didn’t take long for our conversations to become sexual,” Mark says. “There was a mutual attraction, and the sexual tension of our conversation aroused me.”

Mark’s wife had been battling a series of medical issues for a long time and as a result, the couple’s sex life diminished. With Sarah, Mark found both a virtual sex partner and a woman who complimented his appearance and made him feel desirable. And since their communication was all online, and Mark didn’t plan to ever meet Sarah in person, it didn’t feel like cheating.

Evans says Mark’s case is unfortunately all too common. “These perpetrators lure unsuspecting men into an online relationship, sharing fake photos or videos,” he says. “As the relationship progresses, men are encouraged to use their webcam to appear nude or perform a sexual act. They’re later told their act was recorded and will be distributed to friends, family and their employer, if they don’t pay the perpetrator a fee.” While the monetary demands often start small, Evans notes that it’s not uncommon for extortion demands to begin at $5,000. “If the money is paid, it’s unlikely the blackmailer’s demands will cease,” Evans says.

As an example, he cites the case of his client, Tony, a 67-year-old business manager from Philadelphia, who was blackmailed over the course of several years before learning of Evans’ services. “I started talking to a younger woman named Lori, and it escalated to the point where we were sexting and exchanging explicit photos,” Tony says. “Then the demands for money began, and I was told if I didn’t pay, the images would be released to my family.”

Tony initially paid his extortionist’s demands, but when the demands continued, he cut off communication with Lori. Shortly after, his wife and daughter-in-law received emails containing compromising photos of Tony. “Apparently once a perpetrator gets your name, it’s easy for them to track down the names and addresses of your family members,” Tony says. “Things got really bad. My wife was hurt because I hadn’t been honest with her, and she left me.”

Tony says relationships with other family members also became strained, and while he and his wife are now in counseling, and Evans has been able to halt the extortion demands, Tony continues to blame himself. “I’m not a wealthy man, and I lost several thousand dollars and the trust of my family to this scam,” he says. 

In Mark’s case, Sarah started by asking for money to help her mother who was ill. When Mark declined, the threats became more aggressive. “She used my name in a text, although I had never given her my full name, and she told me she knew my daughter,” Mark says. “She said if I didn’t begin sending her money, my compromising photos would be spread all over social media.” Mark considered going to the local police, but felt embarrassed he had fallen for what was obviously a scam. After reading whatever he could find about sextortion, he learned it isn’t recognized as a crime in many states, and as a result, victims have little recourse.

“Sextortion crimes aren’t prosecuted in a uniform manner,” Evans says. “Perpetrators are often charged with crimes such as blackmail and extortion, and the ones who prey on children get stricter sentences than those who target adults.” Currently, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Texas and Utah are the only states to have laws making it a felony to blackmail people with the threat of distributing explicit images of them. 
I’m not a wealthy man, and I lost several thousand dollars and the trust of my family to this scam.
Evans says that while the focus of law enforcement is to apprehend and prosecute criminals, police need to have an identifiable suspect as well as jurisdiction in order to build a case. “This is often not possible when dealing with overseas perpetrators,” he says. “In contrast to making an arrest, my role is to produce the best possible outcome for my client, and that doesn’t necessarily mean prosecution, but rather ensuring the photos don’t go viral and stopping the demands.”

“All too often, people confuse sextortion with revenge porn, which are two distinctly different crimes,” Evans says. “Revenge porn uses intimate photos to humiliate and degrade victims, while sextortion involves a demand for some action on the victim’s part such as payment or a webcam performance.”

In his research, Mark learned that Evans had a strong track record of helping sextortion victims, and he reached out to enlist his help rather than give in to the perpetrator’s demands for money. Evans immediately took over all communications with the perpetrators. He cautioned Mark to end all contact with them as he worked to end the ordeal and stop the manipulation. Mark knows he was one of the lucky ones. He’s heard the news stories about men who have taken their own lives to escape both their shame and continuing blackmail demands. “The media does a better job of glorifying sexting than underscoring the darker side,” Mark says.

Dr. Mary Anne Franks, law professor at the University of Miami and the policy director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a non-profit that raises awareness of online abuse, says her organization hears from a lot of male sextortion victims. “In my experience, loneliness and vulnerability often lead to poor decisions,” Franks says. “It is deeply unfortunate that in our society, having a trustful nature is so often regarded as a character defect, or, worse, as a justification for exploitation.”

Franks says the CCRI makes no distinction between the male and female victims who contact them for help. “We advise sextortion victims not to comply with the demands of perpetrators, as compliance rarely proves to be an effective strategy,” she says. “With regard to law enforcement response, there are some extraordinary police officers who treat these cases very seriously and professionally. There are others, unfortunately, who seem to treat sextortion like a joke or just punishment, regardless of whether it involves female and male victims.”

Franks cautions both men and women against sending intimate material to anyone they’ve never actually met.

“The request for naked photos by someone you do not know well should always be regarded as a red flag,” she says. “Anyone who pressures a reluctant person to send such photos is expressing disrespect for that person's boundaries, which is a strong indication that they are capable of doing worse things down the road.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims

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