Financially Driven Online Child Sextortion


Modern criminals have evolved by using technology to exploit vulnerable individuals.

A particularly concerning example is “sextortion,” a combination of “sex” and “extortion,” of children.

U.S. lawmakers have failed to combat this problem head-on, relying instead on legislation that targets adjacent issues.

Predators may commit online child sextortion for financial gain.

This article explores U.S. federal inadequacy in addressing financial sextortion, and how can improved U.S. federal legislation help curb this problem and stop sextortion?

How Does Sextortion Happen?

Sextortion occurs when a predator acquires sexual images or video of a minor then threatens to expose the material publicly or share it with the victim’s friends or family.

Extortion threats are usually aggressive and insistent.

Sometimes, a minor shares an image with someone they trust, but the individual has gained the trust through deceit or coercion.

Predators may also falsely claim to have obtained explicit material the child shared with someone else, convincing the young person they hold leverage.

Financial sextortion is primarily financially rather than sexually motivated.

Peer-to-peer payment platforms like CashApp, Paypal, Venmo, Zelle, and Apple Pay are common ways predators extract money. [1] 


Who are Likely Sextortion Victims?

Financial sextortion may happen to a child, teen, or young adult.

Teenage boys have been the most common targets in recent cases.

In 2022, male victims represented 93% of financial sextortion victims. [2]

Cases reported by electronic service providers have gone from one in 2019 to 7,777 in 2022. [3] 

In 2023, NCMEC received over 20,000 reports of financial sextortion. [4] 

This concerning increase highlights the immediate need to tackle child sexual exploitation online.

Recent Sextortion Cases

Even if they receive payment, predators often release the explicit content. [5] 

Victims may feel too frightened, confused, and ashamed to ask for help or identify the abuser.

This psychological impact can be profound, potentially leading to adverse effects and in extreme cases, suicide.

Recently, an individual posing as a Californian woman exploited at least 30 teenage boys and young men, coercing them into sending explicit images. [6]

The predator threatened to expose these images to the victims’ families and friends unless they paid a specified amount.

One 18-year-old from Ventura County, California, paid $1,500 in Apple gift cards and then took his own life.

This suicide was the second sextortion-related death in California within a three-month period.

A 17-year-old from San Jose also took his own life after being blackmailed by a cybercriminal who coerced him into sharing an intimate photo.

Victims who end their own lives may feel desperate and entrapped.

Others have experienced withdrawal, depression, or turned to self-harm after their images circulated online — or live in perpetual dread of such an occurrence.


Is Sextortion a Crime?

Roughly a dozen states have specifically criminalized sextortion. [7] 

Sextortion cases often involve individuals in different states, and the absence of a specific federal standard means prosecutions may vary based on state laws.

Inconsistent legal frameworks can complicate efforts to pursue and penalize offenders uniformly.

Federal laws target aspects of sextortion, but no federal statute specifically addresses this crime.

Without a federal sextortion statute, law enforcement agencies may be limited in their ability to investigate and prosecute cases that cross international borders.

This ability is critical because many sextortion cases originate outside of the United States.

Offenders primarily hail from Africa and Southeast Asia, specifically Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and the Philippines. [8]

Since sextortion typically involves coercing children to give sexual content, it is subject to prosecution under a spectrum of existing laws, such as extortion, blackmail, and child pornography statutes.

While using existing laws to prosecute sextortion may seem practical, there are potential drawbacks.

Drafters did not design extortion, blackmail, and child pornography statutes to cover sextortion’s unique aspects.

Further, prosecuting sextortion under various existing federal laws may lead to inconsistent judicial interpretations.

Prosecutors will handle cases differently based on which statute is applied, potentially resulting in unequal justice.

How Legal Changes Can Help Stop Extortion

Lacking sextortion legislation has created a patchwork approach.

For example, prosecutors have targeted online sextortion cases with federal laws, such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) and the Interstate Communications Act.

However, these laws fail to address sextortion’s unique elements, such as coercion, explicit content, and financial demands.

Lawmakers must create legislation that specifically defines and criminalizes financial sextortion, incorporating elements such as online coercion, explicit content, and financial exploitation and adding aggravated factors such as the victim’s age.

Doing so better equips Congress to combat financial sextortion. 

What is Human Trafficking Front Doing?

Human Trafficking Front advocates that U.S. lawmakers implement sextortion-specific legislation, giving victims a chance at protection and justice.

Without such legislation, prosecutors cannot consistently address this issue.

If you’re interested in instructing children and guardians about sextortion online, donate to us today.

Our outreach efforts help protect potential future and current victims from the worst of online abuse.

Key Takeaways

1. Financial sextortion is the threat to release a person’s sexual material in exchange for money.

2. Boys and young men are the most frequent victims of sextortion.

3. Recent sextortion cases have driven victims to suicide.

4. U.S. legislators must enact specific sextortion legislation for more effective prosecution.

Act Now. For more tools and information, check out our Resources page.  

Additional Details

This best practices prevention guide and publication is part of the Human Trafficking Front's program: Putting an End to the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children: Preventing Victimization and Strengthening Child Protection Systems.

Recommended Citation

Human Trafficking Front. (2023, December 26). Financially Driven Online Child Sextortion. https://humantraffickingfront.org/online-child-sextortion/

References

[1] McNulty, Fallon. NCMEC’s Cybertipline: Response to Financial Sextortion, 5. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), June 28, 2023.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 6.  

[4] National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Financial Sextortion: A Growing Crisis. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2023/financial-sextortion-growing-crisis

[5] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). HSI, Federal Partners Issue National Public Safety Alert on Sextortion Schemes. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),  https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/hsi-federal-partners-issue-national-public-safety-alert-sextortion-schemes

[6] Brewster, Thomas. An Instagram Sextortionist Tricked 30 Boys Into Sharing Intimate Photos, FBI Says. One Took His Own Life. Forbes, August 25, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/thomasbrewster/2022/08/25/instagram-sextortionist-fbi-investigation/?sh=5234a1f06fc3

[7] Sextortion: Should It Be a Federal Crime? HG.org, https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/sextortion-should-it-be-a-federal-crime-53756

[8] McNulty, Fallon. NCMEC’s Cybertipline: Response to Financial Sextortion, 3. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), June 28, 2023.

Human Trafficking Front
 

Dr. Beatriz Susana Uitts is a human rights specialist, Internet child safety advocate, and founder of Human Trafficking Front, a research and advocacy organization for the prevention of human trafficking. Dr. Uitts holds a J.S.D. and LL.M. in Intercultural Human Rights from St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens, FL, and is the author of the book Sex Trafficking of Children Online: Modern Slavery in Cyberspace regarding the growing problem of online child sexual exploitation. In this book, she proposes solutions to prevent its spread and promote a safer Internet for children and adolescents worldwide.