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What Is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of blackmail in which the attacker threatens to send sexual images or videos of you to others if you do not pay them or give them additional sexual content. This sextortion definition applies to any gender, and although attacks can be directed at anyone of any age, attackers tend to target younger individuals.

A sextortion predator uses the fear of embarrassment against their victims. Knowing their targets do not want any humiliating content on the internet, they use threats to motivate young people into giving them money. Attackers may also threaten to send the images to the victim’s parents, school officials, or even their employers unless the target either pays them or sends more content.

How Does Sextortion Happen?

Typically, sextortion begins with a seemingly normal conversation online. The attacker then moves the interaction in a romantic or sexual direction before asking the victim to send nude videos or pictures.

To trick their victims, these predators may flatter their target or give them a lot of attention to make them feel valued, special, or unique. They may also try to make the victim feel bad for them by using a sob story with the hope of appealing to the victim’s sense of compassion. If the target is emotionally vulnerable, the attacker may pretend to be an understanding companion with an open ear.

However, after the victim sends explicit content, the attacker then either asks for more content or demands payment in exchange for not publishing or forwarding the sexual content the victim sent over. In many cases, the attacker will falsify their identity, pretending to be a teenage girl or boy, with the aim of gaining the victim’s trust.

How Do You Know Who Can Be Trusted Online?

While it is difficult to know whom to trust, you can reduce the risk of being sextorted by only interacting with people online that you have met in person. Even if you have met the individual in person, it is important to verify the legitimacy of their online profile by checking for details such as date of birth and recent posts that can be verified as authentic. This is because someone can steal the online identity of an individual you know in an attempt to get closer to you.

Another way to ascertain who can be trusted online is to check the person's friends list. If you have friends in common, you can check with them to see if they have had face-to-face communication with the person. Because sextortion attackers can create a web of “friends” and “contacts,” only face-to-face interactions can serve as proof that the identity of the individual is authentic.

Some people feel talking to someone on the phone is adequate proof of identity. However, as long as the person is the same gender as they are pretending to be, they can pose as your online “friend” on the phone. You should also be careful of video chatting. The person can claim their camera is not working or their bandwidth is too low and keep their camera off while they record everything you show them.

How To Protect Yourself Against Sextortion

Protecting yourself from sextortion is not too hard if you know what to look out for. Here are some simple steps to take when interacting with others online or via text.

  1. Do not overshare personal details online, and if you share personal things, beware when someone mentions something you posted. Often, a criminal can grab small bits of information from their victim’s profile or feed and then use this to gain their trust. For example, they may pretend to be someone in a high school not far from that of their victim. If the victim has posted about how they performed at a sporting event, the attacker can use that detail in a message, such as, “Hey, 23 points?! Not bad!”
  2. Beware of anyone you meet online for the first time. If you get messages from strangers, block or ignore them. There is no way to verify the person’s identity if they exist only online.
  3. If someone is only available online, this can be a red flag. They can steal someone else’s pictures and videos and claim them as their own. They can also steal pictures of neighborhoods, streets, restaurants, and stores they “visit.” Nothing but face-to-face communication is proof of their identity.
  4. If you meet someone on an application or a game and they ask you to continue the conversation on another platform, beware. They may have been playing the game or using the app just to try to lure someone in.
  5. Understand that absolutely everything you share online—whether it is pictures, videos, text messages, or posts—can be shared and publicized. Also, after you send something, there is no way to control where it goes.
  6. Do not shy away from asking for help. Responsible adults, parents, administrators, close friends, and the authorities are often willing to lend a listening ear and may be able to help you out. It is important to tell someone, not just to stop the attack or prevent the next one but to also alert the authorities so they can investigate and protect others.

Steps To Take if You Are Being Sextorted

If you are being sextorted, you are not alone. This kind of abuse is common, and there is no need to feel shame. Here are some steps you should take right away.

Tell Someone Close to You

It can be hard to admit that you have fallen for a sextortion scheme, particularly because you may feel embarrassed for missing the warning signs. You may also feel that others, even those close to you, cannot possibly understand what you are going through. Some worry that the attacker will follow through on a threat to hurt you or someone else if you tell. 

However, your silence is the abuser’s most powerful weapon. Confide in someone close to you and explain the entire situation. Often, they may be able to help you out—or at least provide emotional support, which ends the feeling of isolation you may be experiencing. You can also reach out to a sextortion helpline for assistance and support.

Stop All Contact with the Offender

As long as you stay in touch with the attacker, they have power over you. Stopping contact removes their leverage and protects you from further attacks. With each communication, the attacker becomes more bold, feeling they are tightening their grip on you. 

Whether you have given in to a demand already or not, it is important to sever all communications. This may involve blocking the attacker on all social media outlets as well as on your phone. Also, be careful of someone new popping up soon after you block the attacker. It can be them posing as someone else because predators often have many social media accounts they use to manipulate their targets.

Do Not Delete Anything

You do not have to play a key role in the investigation and prosecution of your attacker, and you should feel no pressure to. Your wellbeing is the most important. However, if you simply do not delete the communications, the authorities can use that information to track down and prosecute the attacker. Every communication and time stamp is evidence that can be used against them.

Tell the Authorities

At this point, there is no federal law that specifically names sextortion as a crime. However, the more the police know about these kinds of incidents, the more likely it is that legislation will be introduced that can make it a federal-level offense. Reporting what happened to the police can therefore prevent others from being harmed in the future.

How Fortinet Can Help

With FortiMail, users can gain protection against a variety of threats, including sextortion phishing emails and attempts to impersonate others. FortiMail has been independently tested by outside firms, and they have verified its effectiveness at protecting targets from a variety of email-based attacks, including those where attackers pretend to be someone who can be trusted.

FortiMail protects you using advanced, multilayer security and capabilities. You get protection from known threats, brand-new or zero-day threats, suspected attacks, attempts at impersonation, and business email compromise (BEC). As FortiMail gains insights into attacks and suspected attacks, the information can be shared with others at a school or place of business to help prevent future sextortion attempts.

FAQs

What is sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of blackmail where the attacker threatens to send sexual images or videos of you to others if you do not either pay them or give them additional sexual content.

How do you deal with sextortion?

If you think you are being sextorted, you should tell someone close to you, stop all contact with the offender, keep all correspondences instead of deleting them, and tell the police.

How do I report sextortion?

To report sextortion, you can tell the police and fill out a report that they keep confidential. You can also tell authorities in your school who have been trained on how to best deal with sextortion assaults.