Mounties in British Columbia issued a warning Friday about a recent increase in “sextortion,” saying police have received a “large number” of reports of money-motivated extortion targeting children and youth.
The statement issued by Coquitlam RCMP follows similar warnings from police departments in other provinces in recent months, including in Alberta and Ontario.
“Sextortion” refers to threats based on a sexual image of a victim, or an image that’s been altered to make it appear sexual, explains Stephen Sauer, the director of Cybertip.ca, a tip line operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.
“We’re seeing quite a boom in this type of exploitation,” Sauer says.
Criminals are taking advantage of loose regulations and a lack of accountability around what happens on social media platforms, along with pandemic-driven increases in the amount of time kids are spending online, he says.
There’s also a “double-silencing effect” among victims, who often don’t tell anyone about the extortion because they’ve been convinced to share sexual images of themselves and they’re afraid of getting into trouble, Sauer says.
The victims are pulled “deeper and deeper” into the extortion, he says, as the criminals continue harassing them, threatening to publicly share the personal images while they try to extract as much money as they can.
“We’ve seen cases where they repeatedly come back and kids have paid thousands upon thousands of dollars, as a result of the threats to share the image publicly.”
Sauer says his organization typically receives 200 or more sextortion tips each month, a number that’s been rising, particularly with the onset of the pandemic.
Looking into “chatter amongst the offending community,” he says they noticed the extortionists “understood that they had more unfettered access to kids.”
The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre received a total of 52,306 complaints about the crime for the year 2020-21 – a 510 per cent increase from seven years earlier.
The statement from Coquitlam RCMP says a suspect often begins a “flirtatious” online relationship and convinces the victim to send nude photos or videos before threatening to distribute the images unless the youth sends some kind of payment.
It says the suspects use techniques to protect their identities and they do not always live in Canada, which makes it difficult to investigate and prosecute.
Sauer says his organization has heard from law enforcement agencies that “there are pockets of these individuals, these extorters, that appear to be international.”
Many Canadians learned of the risks of sextortion through Amanda Todd, a teenager from Port Coquitlam, B.C. She died by suicide at age 15 in October 2012, a few weeks after posting a video using flash cards to describe being tormented by an online predator.
A Dutch man was convicted in British Columbia Supreme Court last year of extortion, harassment and distribution of child pornography in Todd’s case.
The trial heard Aydin Coban followed through on his threats to send photos of Todd exposing her breasts to her family, friends and school administrators unless she complied with his demands to perform sexual “shows” in front of a web camera.
Sauer says the majority of victims who contact Cybertip.ca seeking support are boys and young men between the ages of 15 and 25, with most incidents occurring over the social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat.
Last summer, a 17-year-old boy died by suicide in his rural community south of Winnipeg within three hours of a message that sought to extort him, Sauer says.
Some youth are convinced to send nude images or videos, while others have reported their images have been altered, Sauer says.
Some victims have reported that “a picture was taken and edited so it appears that they are engaged in a sexual act or they’re offending against other kids,” he says, adding that kind of extortion typically targets older teens or young adults.
In the statement from Coquitlam RCMP,Cpl. Alexa Hodgins says police are encouraging young victims to ask for help by speaking with an adult.
The Mounties are urging parents to “be open about online behaviour” and work with their children to ensure they aren’t sharing sensitive personal images.
The warning in Coquitlam comes shortly after similar statements were issued by the Ontario Provincial Police and the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams’ internet and child exploitation unit. Police in Guelph, Ont., and New Westminster, B.C., have also issued news releases about sextortion in the past few days, and the departments are encouraging parents to have conversations with their children about the potential risks of using technology to experiment sexually.
Sauer says the government should step in to more tightly regulate the companies that operate the social media platforms where children are being sexually exploited.
“When you consider what a company knows in terms of advertising, and the amount of targeted ads they can serve up to you based on your browsing history and all your activity on the platform, they know more than they’re letting on, and they’re using it for monetizing purposes but not to safeguard or protect the users.”