AVG Signal Blog Security Threats Sextortion and Blackmail — What You Need to Know

Written by Deepan Ghimiray
Published on January 31, 2022

What is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a type of blackmail that happens when someone threatens to share or publish private, sensitive material unless you send them sexually explicit images, perform sexual favors, or give them money. Sextortion is a serious crime, with victims tricked or coerced into sending personal sexual images or videos.

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    Sextortionists often seek people who stream or post sexually explicit content of themselves. They use fake accounts and other social engineering tricks to gain trust, then ask for compromising images or videos. Perpetrators then threaten to publish the content unless the victim sends more. Sextortion can even escalate to blackmail sex.

    Sextortion also occurs when a victim is coerced into sending sexual content to retreive stolen private data. The attacker steals the data — perhaps through spoofing or planting malware — then makes demands on the victim to get it back.

    Young people are especially vulnerable to sextortion, because they’re generally less inhibited online, tending to share more and being more trustful of internet strangers.

    How does sextortion happen?

    From gaming platforms and social media to dating and video chat apps, there are many places where we can exchange personal data with others. Often, these places are where sextortion occurs.

    Sextortionists will use various means to gain a victim’s trust. They can pretend to be a romantic interest, use flattery, and offer money and other valuable items. Once comfortable, the victim can be manipulated into sending compromising content used for sexual extortion or even blackmailed for sex.

    Perpetrators can also apply a more aggressive approach: using force and threats to coerce or blackmail victims into creating sexually explicit images and video.

    An example of sextortion via Facebook messenger.

    Sextortion is often a dangerous cycle. Meeting demands doesn’t always end the sextortion. Sometimes, after producing the requested content, sextortionists will threaten exposure as a way to demand even more explicit content. What may begin as blackmail for sexual images can quickly rise to blackmail for sex.

    Examples of sextortion

    Although a newer form of online abuse, sextortion crimes are increasing. As technology allows for more connectivity, the potential for blackmail grows. News stories involving sextortion are disturbing, but they can help educate you and your loved ones on how sextortionists operate and how you can stay protected.

    Here are a two widely reported sextortion cases in recent years:

    Richard Finkbiner

    Arrested in 2012, Richard Finkbiner possessed more than 22,000 video clips from the webcam feeds of young people throughout the US. Much of the confiscated material was sexual in nature.

    Using an anonymous video chat website, Finkbiner first tricked victims by showing them pre-recorded explicit videos of other people. Believing these were live videos from the people in them, the victims were encouraged to send similar content. After receiving such videos, Finkbiner would reveal himself and threaten to publish the victims’ videos unless they sent more.

    Finkbiner sent his victims doctored images showing screenshots of their videos on pornogprahic websites — threatening to “post” more if they didn’t comply. He would also send them screenshots of their contacts taken from social media websites.

    With victims ranging in age from 12 to 16, Finkbiner was ultimately sentenced to 40 years in prison, fined $70,000, and will require lifetime federal supervision after his release.

    David Ernest Otto

    Arrested in 2019, David Ernest Otto used popular social media platforms to target and coax underage girls into sending him sexually explicit content. With flattery and special attention, Otto groomed his victims until they were comfortable enough to agree to his requests.

    Otto was caught when the mother of one of his victims found their messages on Instagram. Investigators tracked the IP address of Otto’s account to his home. Serving a search warrant, investigators seized a number of Otto’s devices and found communications with six additional minors.

    Otto was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison and requires lifetime federal supervision post-release.

    How to deal with sextortion

    Dealing with a sextorion incident can be traumatic. The fallout can have serious consequences for the victim and their loved ones. Sextortion victims can even be driven to meet the demands of the attacker, who promises to make the problem disappear.

    But complying can make matters worse and begin a vicious cycle. Although sextortion is a difficult situation, victims should follow the established procedure to reduce potential damages.

    Here’s how to deal with sextortion, webcam blackmail, and other forms of blackmail sex:

    • Stop all communication immediately.

    • Never comply with requests: don’t send images, videos, or money.

    • Keep the evidence: names and usernames of the suspect, all communications, and photo/video evidence.

    • Report the sextortion incident to the proper authorities.

    Speak to a trusted adult

    Maybe you made some mistakes online, but you don’t deserve to be blackmailed. Sextortion is a serious crime, and there’s no shame in reaching out to someone you trust for help.

    Talk to a family member, friend, a teacher, or anyone you feel comfortable with. They can help you take the steps to end a sextortion threat.

    Sextortionists are predators that feed on fears of embarrassment and punishment. Don’t give into their ploys. Chances are you aren’t the only one targeted — speaking up may help others too.

    Report sextortion to online services

    Popular online services, like Facebook and WhatsApp, are commonly used for sextortion and blackmail. Since these services are motivated to keep sextortion off their platforms, they can be an ally. If you’re targeted for sextortion, reporting the cybercrime can help stop the perpetrator.

    Here’s how to deal with Facebook sextortion:

    1. Go on the attacker’s profile page by searching for it or clicking on it in your News Feed.

    2. Click the ellipsis (three dots) on the right of the top navigation and select Find support or report profile.

    3. Follow the on-screen instructions for submitting a report or giving other feedback.

      Reporting a Facebook profile.

    Here’s how to deal with WhatsApp sextortion:

    1. Open WhatsApp and find the chat with the attacker.

    2. Tap their name at the top of the screen, then scroll down and tap Report [Contact].

      Reporting someone on WhatsApp.

    Once you report an attacker to WhatsApp, the company will receive the last 5 messages they sent to you, and the attacker won’t be notified. WhatsApp will also receive the reported user’s ID and information on when the messages were sent.

    Report Sextortion to the Police

    Sextortion is a crime comparable to blackmail — and what the police can do about blackmail depends on the evidence. A sextortion case requires evidence too. So it’s essential to keep records of all correspondence, images, video, and any other communication with the perpetrator.

    When reporting sextortion to the police, these records of communication help create a stronger case. They can help investigators hold the sextortionist to account and prevent more people from being victimized into blackmail for sex in the future.

    It may be possible to report blackmail to the police online — and the same goes for a sextortion incident. Use a search engine to locate and contact your nearest police precinct, and research your options from there.

    Report Sextortion to the FBI

    The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) makes sextortion a priority — especially cases with young people. A single sextortion case can involve a national, or even international, list of victims. The FBI has the experience and resources to pursue the most sophisticated sexortion operations.

    To report sextortion to the FBI, contact your local FBI office, or call the FBI toll-free at 1-800-CALL-FBI. You can also report sextortion to the FBI online.

    How to protect myself against sextortion

    Protecting yourself against sextortion means following basic online safety and privacy practices. You likely know most of the strategies. Sextortionists often target young people who make basic online security mistakes. If you avoid the mistakes and use the best internet privacy tools, you should be good.

    Here’s how to protect yourself against sextortion:

    • Set social media accounts to private: Public accounts can be viewed by anyone — including sexortionists. And what you have in your account can make it easier for perpetrators to target you. Keep sextortionists out by making your accounts private.

      Set your social media accounts private to protect yourself against sextortion.
    • Be careful what you share online: Think before you post online. Too much information about you online can be used for targeted sextortion and other blackmail. A personal or explicit post — like a sexual photo — can be sent around the internet and come back to haunt you.

    • Block or ignore messages from strangers: If people you don’t know are sending you random messages, they’re probably creeps. Don’t take a chance and block them immediately. Using secure message apps can help safeguard your private communications.

      Blocking people on social media can help you avoid unsafe interactions.
    • People can pretend to be someone else: It’s easy to set up fake accounts. So don’t simply trust anyone who contacts you. Make sure people are who they say they are, and ignore or block them if something seems off.

    • Be suspicious if they want to talk on another platform: If you meet someone on a gaming platform or app and suddenly they want to talk someplace else, that’s a red flag. Be careful and don’t send any private info or content.

    • Block and report strange requests: If you receive weird messages or requests, it could be a sextortion plot. Immediately block and report the user. If you’re a minor, tell an adult — remember, you didn’t commit the crime.

    • Browse the web securely: When browsing online, use one of the best secure and private browsers to help protect you against the variety of online threats. Private browsers can safeguard your digital identity and help ensure your online activity stays hidden from prying eyes.

    • Use strong passwords: Create long, hard-to-crack passwords or passphrases for all your online accounts. Using strong, unique passwords for all your different online accounts will make sure your personal information stays secure.

    How to protect your children against sextortion

    Kids are usually more tech-savvy than their parents. But protecting your children against sextortion and other cybercrimes doesn’t need to be complicated. Many best practices are similar to the ones used to protect kids offline.

    Protecting children from becoming victims of sextortion involves informing them about the signs of danger, making sure they avoid strangers, and encouraging open communication.

    Since young people already spend so much time on their phones, make sure your kids have the best privacy apps for Android or best iPhone security apps, depending on the kind of phone they have.

    Check out our comprehensive guide to keeping children safe online to help you take the right steps to prevent a sextortion incident. It will also help protect your kids from other online threats.

    Protect yourself online with AVG Antivirus

    Prevention is your best strategy against sextortion. Applying defensive measures can help ward off extortion plots against you and your loved ones. A secure and private browser like AVG Secure Browser will stop threats and cybercriminals before they get a chance to harvest your personal info and blackmail you.

    AVG Secure Browser is designed by security experts to prioritize privacy, and it offers real-time threat detection to protect against identity theft, phishing scams, and other threats like malware. In the fight against sextortion and other cybercrimes, AVG Secure Browser has your back.

    Browse securely and privately with AVG Secure Browser

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    Browse securely and privately with AVG Secure Browser

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    Deepan Ghimiray