Protecting teens from sextortion: What parents should know

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The digital world has provided countless opportunities for youngsters that their parents never experienced. It helped kids stay in touch with each other during the dark days of pandemic-era lockdowns. And now that the world is opening up again, the allure of the digital world remains undimmed. But the online world also exposes children to dangers that their parents never encountered when they were young.

For example, recent years have seen an alarming rise in sextortion cases, including those targeting teens. In 2021, the FBI claimed to have recorded over 16,000 complaints in the first seven months of the year alone. Many more victims may be too ashamed to come forward.

It’s time parents and caregivers wised up to the risks facing their kids online, and learned some best practice tips for mitigating them.

What is sextortion?

As the name suggests, sextortion is a kind of blackmail where a threat actor tricks or coerces a victim into sharing sexually explicit images or videos of themselves and then threatens to release the material unless the victim either pays them or agrees to send more such photos or videos.

In recent months, the FBI has issued multiple warnings of an increase in sextortion cases where victims have been befriended online by individuals masking their true identity before being tricked into sending explicit images or videos of themselves to the crooks. The victims then faced demands for more such material (or more money) or else the content would be released to the victim’s friends and family.

Worryingly, children and young adults are increasingly the target for sextortion attacks – they are more credulous and therefore easier for attackers to trick. And in many cases, the latter want specifically to obtain compromising images of youngsters for their own gratification.

It’s a threat that can target both sexes. While there are many examples of prolific extortionists targeting girls, the FBI also warned recently of a steep increase in sextortion incidents targeting teenage boys.

What’s the impact of sextortion?

It goes without saying that the prospect of having nude images or videos circulated to friends and family can cause severe emotional and mental trauma for the victims. Children caught up in attacks are often too ashamed or afraid to seek help from friends, parents or teachers. They might try to accede to the extorter’s request, only to dig themselves a deeper hole as the attacker demands more photos or money.

Unfortunately, these incidents can in some cases end tragically:

  • Even back in 2016, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) claimed at least four suicides had been linked to sextortion cases, which it said were vastly under reported.
  • In May 2022, a 17-year-old killed himself after a cyber-criminal tried to extort him for thousands of dollars.
  • In June 2022 something similar happened to another 17-year-old boy in Manitoba, Canada, after he was approached on Snapchat.
  • Just weeks ago, a US man was sentenced to 18 years behind bars after blackmailing a high school boy he had approached online into having sex with him on three occasions and recording the acts on video.

How can I protect my child from sextortion?

Such incidents will horrify most parents. But as tempting as it is to try and restrict internet usage or access to specific sites, creating an atmosphere at home of honesty and mutual trust will be more effective in the long run.

Parents and caregivers need to first understand the dangers themselves, and then share their insight in a non-judgemental way with their kids. Two-way communication is essential. Youngsters need to feel like they can come to their parents for help if they get embroiled in a sextortion case.

If that’s the case, here’s a short list of best practice steps to work through with your child:

  • Cease all communication with the extorter
  • Don’t pay them anything
  • Save as much evidence as possible, including screenshots of messages or saved images
  • Report to the police and the relevant online platform

The good news is that if the extorter has tried to share the content online, most reputable social media sites will have policies to take it down. And police action is having an impact. Just weeks ago, Interpol scored a win when it dismantled a sextortion ring that had made an estimated US$43,000 out of its victims in Asia.

Prevention is better than cure

Yet prevention is always the best course of action here. While most sextortion threats today involve social engineering rather than information stealing malware, it pays to take steps to mitigate the threat from both. To help protect your child, chat to them about the danger and about the simple steps they can take to keep clear of it. They include basics like:

  • Stay cautious online: people are not always who they say they are
  • Set your social media accounts to private
  • Don’t send any videos or pictures to someone you haven’t met in real life
  • Never share intimate photos or videos of yourself or anyone else – you have no control over what happens with the images or videos afterwards
  • Ignore messages from strangers and be wary of anyone wanting to move the conversation to another platform – such efforts also happen to be one of the warning signs of a romance scam
  • Come to me whenever you think you’ve been targeted by an online predator

At the same time, it’s never a bad time to consider reminding them of the importance of using strong and unique passwords, using reputable security software, and avoiding to click on links or download attachments in unsolicited messages.

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