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What Is Sextortion?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 19, 2022

Sextortion is when someone threatens to share intimate details, sexual images, or videos of you online if you don’t meet their demands. They might do this to get money, sexual favors, more nude photos, or something else. It’s more common than you think. 

This is abuse and it might come from someone you know or a stranger you met online. It can happen regardless of your age, gender, or sexual orientation. But research shows that women, teens, and children are the most likely targets. 

Sextortion is a serious crime. Here’s how you can spot its signs, report them, and keep yourself or your child safe. 

How Does Sextortion Work?

It often involves “grooming” someone for weeks or months before turning into blackmail. For example, you might meet someone online on a dating, social media, or gaming app who sends you a “friend request,” flirts with you, appears to be very friendly, or shows interest in starting a relationship with you. They often use a fake identity. 

As you get to know them, you might decide to trust them with sexual images of yourself including nude selfies. They might request, persuade, or force you to do this.

In some cases, they may ask you to perform sexual acts in front of a live webcam, and they might record you without your permission. 

But once they get hold of these images, they threaten to share them with your family and friends, or publicly publish them online. They use these threats to coerce you into giving them things like money or sexual favors.

According to experts, in some cases, the process can involve a team of criminals or an organized group that’s perfected the scam of sextorting people, whether online or in person. 

If this happens to you, you might feel shame, fear, and isolation. The abuser might also use threats to stop you from reporting it to your loved ones or the authorities. This could make the situation worse and force you to do whatever they ask. 

In most cases, the scammers demand money (financial sextortion) rather than more sexual favors or images, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

Who’s Affected by Sextortion?

According to the Department of Homeland Security, most sextortion predators often target teens between the ages of 14-17. But reports also show that about 1 in 4 kids were 13 or younger when they were targeted. 

Among child victims, the NCMEC reports that nearly 8 out of 10 victims are girls. But boys are more likely to be targeted by scammers working through online apps to pose as girls interested in a romantic relationship. These make up about 5% of sextortion cases. 

How to Spot Sextortion

These predators are savvy blackmailers, skilled at trapping their victims online or in person. So it may be difficult early on to figure out if you or your child are being scammed. 

But warning signs are when they:

  • Use tactics to appear very friendly to you through words, GIFs, or compliments.
  • Record video chats or messages during your chats.
  • Have multiple online profiles or accounts they use to contact you.
  • Pretend to be younger in age or a different gender. 
  • Ask you for personal information about yourself, your friends, and your family.
  • Start out by asking you for something small or harmless, like a regular photo of yourself.
  • Offer you gaming credit or virtual money in exchange for a photo. 
  • Ask you for your passwords and usernames, or they hack into your account to download your intimate details.
  • Threaten to hurt or kill themselves if you don’t cooperate with their demands.

Threats often begin sooner for online targets – as soon as two weeks after first getting in touch with you. Research shows nearly half of all sextortion victims get threats daily from their abusers.

What to Do If This Happens to You

If you find yourself being sextorted, it can be frightening and take an emotional and physical toll. You may fear for your safety, or have feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, alone, and anxiousness. But it can happen to anyone and it’s not your fault.

You may feel trapped and believe there’s no way out of the situation other than giving in to your abuser’s demands. But don’t give them money or information. Sextortion is a preventable crime and there are ways for you to get help and support. You can:

Tell someone you trust. This could be a friend, parent, teacher, school counselor, or co-worker you feel safe and comfortable opening up to. They can help you report the sextortion to legal authorities like the police or the FBI. 

Block the abuser online. Most online profiles give you the option to block someone from chatting with you or viewing your profile. This might help you get rid of the scammer and cut off communication. But research shows that in over 4 in 10 cases, predators will find other ways to get in contact with you. 

Take screenshots of your chats if you can. Save or download your images and texts. Save any URLs or website links that were shared with you. This will help you show proof to the authorities. It’ll help them track down your abuser or notice patterns of abuse if other victims are involved.

Report it to the website or app you’re using. Most social media, gaming, and dating apps have legal rules and protections in place to try and prevent sextortion and other types of cyberbullying and abuse. This also applies to any images or videos that were shared on public websites without your (or your guardian's) consent. 

The website or app involved may also be able to alert the authorities and remove any sexual information that was shared. 

How to Report Sextortion 

Sextortion is common. But research shows that about one-third of cases go unreported. You may be less likely to report it if you think no one will believe you were conned or manipulated into sending sexual images of yourself. 

It’s important to note that while the FBI considers sextortion to be a serious, punishable crime, its victims are not at fault in the eyes of the law. 

You won’t get into trouble even if you or your child:

  • Used an app or website that you’re under the legal age to use
  • Willingly shared your information and intimate photos or videos
  • Accepted money or other types of credit

If you think sextortion may be happening to you, call 911 or reach out to the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). You can also report it online by visiting tips.fbi.gov and filling out a form. 

If your child has been targeted, you can report it to NCMEC’s 24/7 CyberTipline at 800-843-5678 or visit cybertipline.org. They’ll connect you with the right authorities, refer your child for counseling if requested, and provide other necessary forms of support for you and your family. 

How Can You Prevent Sextortion?

The best way is to build a healthy level of skepticism about anybody, especially a stranger you meet online or in person. 

If you’re a parent or guardian, protect your children from possible sextortion by:

  • Having open communication about safely using apps or websites online
  • Providing a safe and secure space for your child to open up to you in case they find themselves in such a situation
  • Keeping a close eye on your child’s activity online, whether it's for school or fun. Have an open talk about what’s safe and not safe to share online.
  • Monitoring your child’s privacy settings on their tablets, phones, laptops, and other devices

Other ways to safeguard yourself or your child from sextortion include:

  • Don’t accept a friend request from someone you don’t know in real life.
  • Don’t share your online profile or links with people if you’ve never met them in person.
  • Don’t provide personal info to people online such as your phone number, email address, or home address. 
  • Don’t share your username or password.
  • Don’t use passwords that are your pet’s name, child’s name, or birthday.
  • Don’t click on links you don’t recognize or that seem suspicious.
  • Monitor privacy settings on unsecured devices like a nanny cam or baby monitors.
  • Keep a close eye on your webcam. Keep it blocked when you’re not actively using it. You can put a sticky note or solid-colored tape on it. 
  • Point the camera on your phone or laptop away from you, especially if you’re undressing or bathing.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Ice.gov: “Sextortion.”

Connectsafely.org: “Parent’s Guide to Teen Sextortion Scams.”

National Crime Agency: “Sextortion (Webcam Blackmail).”

The Women’s Legal and Education Fund: “Children, Teens, and Women Are Being Victimized by Cyber-Predators.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: “Trends identified in CyberTipline sextortion reports,” CyperTipline.”

Thorn.org: “What is Sextortion?” “How To Know If You’re A Target Of Sextortion – And What You Can Do About It.”

Fbi.gov: “Sextortion.”

UK Metropolitan Police: “Sextortion.”

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