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This guide looks at online blackmail through sexual imagery – Sextortion.
Sextortion is a form of online blackmail, whereby the perpetrator threatens to expose sexually intimate images of the victim online unless their demands are met. Typical demands include sexual favours, more sexual images/videos (or acts on webcam) and money. Whilst sextortion generally involves some form of imagery, it can also involve threatening to release sexually explicit messages previously sent by or to the victim.
Sextortion can sometimes be likened to what is commonly called ‘revenge porn’. This involves the online distribution of sexually intimate images or videos featuring the victim, usually by a former intimate partner who wants to take ‘revenge’, ‘punish’ and humiliate the victim for ending the relationship. However, where this former partner threatens to release images unless the victim agrees to their demands, then this also becomes sextortion. Demands can include prolonging the relationship or requests for sexual acts. This could also amount to stalking.
A common misnomer is that sextortion only affects adults. Whilst adults account for majority of victims, children are often targeted.
Sextortion is all about the approach and how the perpetrator the obtains the material which will ultimately compromise the victim. This can be achieved in several different ways including:
- online dating sites/apps – where the perpetrator uses a fake identity to befriend and romance the victim, finally to persuading them to send intimate images of themselves or engage in a sexual act via a webcam (which is being recorded).
- images/messages/videos previously and innocently shared with the perpetrator e.g. sexting.
- images/messages/videos hacked from the victim’s online devices/presence.
Whilst sextortion is often perpetrated by individuals, there is growing evidence of widespread use by organised criminal gangs, many based overseas. A typical modus operandi (method) is for the gang to target men using attractive women on dating websites. A woman will befriend the male, using flattery to gain the man’s confidence. This progresses to sexual chatting with the woman encouraging the male to engage in ‘cyber-sex’ with them via a webcam. It is not unusual for the woman to be the first to perform a sexual activity to make the victim feel more comfortable and secure in reciprocating the sexual acts. This is recorded by the gang and the victim is then contacted and the demands for money are made, threatening to share the video/images of the victim with friends, families, work colleagues on the victim’s social media. Part of the demands also include the threat that they will release the material if the victim makes any attempt to report the matter to police. There is a strong chance that the woman could be a victim of modern slavery, forced to act out the part under duress and the fear of threats and violence.
A number of criminal offences may be used to prosecute someone for sextortion, dependent on the perpetrators acts and demands.
Section 33 of the Criminal Justice & Courts Act 2015 makes it an offence to “disclose a private sexual photograph or film if the disclosure is made without the consent of the individual who appears in the photograph or film, and with the intention of causing that individual distress”. This piece of legislation was introduced to deal with the emergence of revenge pornography, but is equally available for sextortion that does not involve former partners. A conviction on indictment carries a 2-year term of imprisonment.
Whist sextortion is a form of blackmail, Section 21 of the Theft Act 1968 only covers circumstances whereby a person, “with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces”. Whereas, this appears to fit sextortion, Section 34 of the Theft Act interprets the term “a view to gain or intent to cause loss” as extending only to gain or loss as being money or other property. This means that where the demand is not financial in nature such as a being coerced into providing sexual favours or to perform sex acts on a webcam, then then this would not be covered under the Theft Act. Blackmail carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.
A number of other offences may be committed by the perpetrator such as:
- stalking and harassment offences covered by the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
- sending a communication that is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, menacing or false under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
- sending a communication that is grossly offensive, indecent, obscene, conveys a threat or is false, with intent to cause distress or anxiety, under Section 1 Malicious Communications Act 1988.
- unauthorised access to computer material under Section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act 1990 which covers images that have been obtained through computer hacking.
Where the victim is a child, then the perpetrator may commit offences under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, and also the offence of possessing indecent images of children (s1 Protection of Children Act 1978).
- report the matter to the police as soon as possible.
- don’t pay any money or agree to any other demands e.g. provide any further images. Where a victim pays, it is not uncommon for the perpetrator to make further demands or post the material anyway.
- don’t communicate with the perpetrator further.
- keep any evidence. Victims should print, record and take screenshots of any communications between themselves and the perpetrator. They should not delete any communications.
- report and log the issue with their Internet Service Provider (ISP) e.g. the company that provides their broadband services.
- report and log the issue to any relevant social media platform. Most firms have procedures to report abuse of their sites. They should consider temporarily deactivating their account whilst they go through the reporting procedure, but should not delete the account permanently as evidence will be lost.
There are very few worthwhile resources for sextortion. Here are the ones we feel might provide you with a bit more information.
From the Non-Government agencies
Revenge Porn Helpline – Home Office funded Helpline established in 2015 alongside the introduction of new legislation in which disclosing private sexual images and videos without someone’s consent became against the law. The helpline is run by a small team of passionate and motivated individuals who are always ready to help.
Tel: 03456 000 459
From the Police
Sextortion (cyber-enabled blackmail) – A video from the National Crime Agency highlighting the dangers of sextortion.
Sextortion reaction film – Have you met Jess? – A follow up video from the National Crime Agency highlighting the reaction to the watching the Sextortion (cyber-enabled blackmail) video mentioned above.
From Action Fraud – an article on a sextortion scam. Provides an example of an email typically used by perpetrators to make their demands.
CPS: Revenge Pornography – Guidelines on prosecuting the offence of disclosing private sexual photographs and films
Other useful links
From the BBC topics page – a number of informative articles on various aspects of sextortion.
The website Get Safe Online –an excellent resource providing practical advice on how to protect yourself, your computers and mobile device against online scams.
Sextortion and what to do about it – 11-minute video explaining sextortion and how to prevent it.