Sexual Extortion: A Growing Problem in PA
By Greg Rowe, PDAA Executive Director
District Attorneys across Pennsylvania are concerned about the growing problem of sexual extortion, which can have a lasting impact on victims and their families.
Sexual extortion often includes the misuse of power to demand sexual acts, images or videos from victims. In 2019, PDAA played a role in the enactment of a bipartisan bill to update our laws to ensure that perpetrators of sexual extortion could be held accountable. While the law is significant, it does not make the problem go away.
In fact, a recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune said law enforcement is seeing an increase in sexual extortion targeting teen-age boys. The article reports that “[t]eenagers, primarily boys, are being lured with the offer of money by [perpetrators] in return for sending sexually explicit photos and videos over social media, only to discover that they become victims in an elaborate extortion scheme seeking more money.”
According to the FBI, predators begin conversations with the boys and then ask for nude photos and videos over time. Once they receive the images, they threaten to blackmail the teens by posting the explicit images online and sending them to their family and friends.
What is particularly noteworthy is that this sort of sexual extortion is different than what the FBI has seen in prior extortion cases. Typically, the goal has been to obtain more explicit images and to continue to sexually exploit the young victim. By contrast, according to the FBI, the goal here is primarily financial and the criminal activity stops once the perpetrator receives payment. In these cases, the perpetrators pose online as young girls looking to lure boys between 14 and 17 to share explicitly explicit photos with them. The perpetrators pretending to be girls then demand payment in order to keep them from disseminating the images.
According to the FBI statistics for 2021, there were 112 people in 11 Western Pennsylvania counties who paid more than $35,000 to cyber criminals. So far in 2022, 59 people have paid nearly $20,000.
Nationally, the FBI estimates that on a nationwide scale, its Internet Crime Complaint Center has received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints, with losses of more than $13.6 million last year.
The FBI has good tips on staying safe online
- Be selective about what you share online, especially your personal information and passwords.
- Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
- Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on a game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
- Encourage children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.
- Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it.
Given that those committing these crimes may be seeking to sexually exploit their victims or to financially harm them, or both, these tips are especially important.
If you have been a victim of sexual extortion, PDAA urges you to seek help. You can contact your local FBI office, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 800-THE-LOST, or your local law enforcement.