What is sextortion and how can you avoid an online sex scam? | #socialmedia


Student James lives at home in a quiet suburb of Aberdeen.

He had not been feeling the best mentally and wanted some company so he went on a website that randomly matches strangers from anywhere in the world to video chat.

After matching with a woman called Jenny from the Philippines the pair started to get to know each other. The chat later turned explicit.

What James didn’t know was “Jenny” was part of a sextortion gang who recorded the chat then, as part of an online sex scam, forced him to pay thousands of pounds or they would make the video public.

Now the young victim, who is undergoing counselling, has told of his ordeal in our new P&J Investigates video series in an effort to warn others of the dangers.

He also tells of the moment he had to tell his mum and sister and then call in police.

The man, whose real identity we have protected, said: “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

What is sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of blackmail and usually involves the criminal behind the online sex scam threatening to share images, videos or messages that are of a sexual nature unless there is payment.

Often victims of this type of crime feel unable to seek help or support because they are scared of their family and friends finding out about what they have done.

Criminals usually research their intended victims on social media before engaging with them.

How many sexual extortion victims were there in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire this year?

Police Scotland does not record the number of sextortion victims, but senior detectives have revealed to us that there has been a significant increase in this kind of offending affecting people in the north-east in recent years.

Infographic stating Police Scotlandrevealed there has been a significant increase in sextortion scams affecting people in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in recent years.

Officers have analysed data* for us as part of this series and have told us that the number of sextortion incidents in the region rose by 61.64% from 2017 to 2021.

(*All data is classed as management information and is not considered official statistics. All data is sourced from Police Scotland internal systems.)

Who is behind this crime?

Gangs posing as attractive men or women – a practise also known as a ‘honeytrap’.

They are often based overseas and will have easy access to accounts on payment platforms such as Western Union, Paypal and Skrill.

Victims will often report they have made electronic payments that need to be collected in person by the recipient.

One person has gone to collect the payment while another has continued speaking with the victim.

These organised sexual extortion crime gangs are often based in Africa, South East Asia, Eastern Europe or Russia.

What are the warning signs of sextortion?

A criminal will attempt to start a conversation with the victim online.

Over the course of time – it could be a minutes, hours or days – the criminal will turn the conversation flirty or sexual.

The criminal will encourage the victims to send compromising or intimate images, videos or messages, perhaps in the belief this is being reciprocated.

Sometimes, the criminal will play explicit videos in a video message to encourage the victim.

Often these videos have no audio and the criminal will continue to communicate via text message.

The criminal will then use this compromising sexualised material to threaten the victim.

A picture of a video call screen

Threats are often accompanied by supporting material to demonstrate the criminal is in possession of the necessary information to carry out the threat.

For example, this could be a list of the victim’s social media contacts.

Personal information and contacts derived from social media is usually integral to the crime.

Sexual extortion is frequently followed up with a demand for payment.

Are there different types of sextortion scams?

There are vaguely two kinds.

One in which the victim is told sexual material will be sent to their friends or family if they do not pay.

The other is when the victim is told the material will be sent to their partners.

This type of sextortion is much easier for the criminal to carry out as a flirty text message is much easier for them to extract than an explicit video.

What should I do to try to avoid being a victim of an online sex scam?

Be mindful of the amount of personal information you share online.

Ensure your social media privacy settings are at an appropriate level to prevent people unknown to you from being able to see potentially sensitive information.

Avoid engaging with people you don’t know on social media, messaging applications and gaming platforms – regardless of mutual connections.

What else should I remember?

Be mindful not to share any personal details, information or media which could be compromising in the wrong hands.

Do not share intimate or potentially compromising images, videos or messages online.

Be aware that any material could be captured or recorded and used to threaten you.

If you are a victim of online extortion, do not engage with any request for benefit.

If payment or anything else is demanded by criminals, refuse.

Do not communicate further with the criminals and retain as much of the communication as possible, by taking screenshots.

What is the advice for parents and carers on sexual extortion?

Close-up of man typing on computer keyboard

Police in the north-east have issued a warning and advice about sextortion as cases rise in the region.

Advice includes being sensible, knowing when not to use a web cam and that victims should come forward as their cases will be taken seriously.

Maintain an open and regular dialogue with your children about their online activity and encourage them to speak to you about any concerns they have.

Encourage them to keep their social media privacy setting high and to avoid sharing compromising images with strangers.

Can I claim my money back if I’ve already paid the scammers?

Probably not. This is because the payments are sent willingly, with the victim knowing that it is going to a criminal.

Payment platforms and banks will often claim that the victim should have contacted police rather than making a payment.

The north-east now has its own cyber crime police unit, based in Aberdeen, which deals with non-contact fraud such as sextortion.

If you have been a victim of sexual extortion or wish to receive further information on how to prevent falling victim to cyber-enabled crime, contact Police Scotland on ‘101’ or visit the Police Scotland website.

You can also contact Action Fraud and speak to Citizens Advice Scotland. If you have any information about those behind romance scams, you can also report them anonymously to Crimestoppers. 

If you or someone you know has been involved in an online sex scam and are looking for someone to speak to, contact the Samaritans or Thinkuknow, a support service for young people, teenagers, parents & carers.


P&J Investigates is our new video series, looking at the devastating emotional and financial impact of online scams.


Credits

Interviews and words by Dale Haslam

Story design by Cheryl Livingstone

Videos by Drew Farrell

Graphics by Carly Gilchrist and Mhorvan Park

SEO by Jamie Cameron

A special thanks to those who provided the voices for our videos.

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