What is sextortion? Meaning and how to deal with blackmail

Anton P. | December 21, 2022

Sextortion is a form of blackmail threatening to release sexually explicit images or videos. This crime usually demands money but might also extort victims’ private information or pressure them into unwanted behavior. 

Online dating apps and websites are hotbeds for sextortion. Criminals present themselves as genuine partners and might convince their matches to send sexual content. However, instead of the beginnings of romantic stories, love seekers receive threats from their love interests. 

Learn how to handle sextortion when your private data is in danger. Additionally, identify signs that someone could be pretending to be someone else online.

Sextortion is a blackmail to release sensitive information, video, or images.

What is sextortion? 

Sextortion meaning refers to intimidation and blackmail with the intent to distribute images, videos, or information about victims’ sexual preferences. Such information is highly confidential, and cases of sextortion are severe cyber crimes. 

It also relates to doxxing, when personal information gets posted online without its owners’ consent. 

Usually, the crime called sextortion involves the following claims and threats: 

  • Criminals might be threatening to share explicit content on social media or other online platforms. 
  • Blackmailers have threatened to send images or sexual information to family members
  • Former romantic partners intimidate the victims by terrorizing them with old pictures

The shame, fear, and anxiety a sextortion victim experiences could lead to a reluctance to reach out to law enforcement. 

People who have experienced sextortion must remember that it is not their fault. It is a crime, and culprits engaging in such schemes should face appropriate legal repercussions. 

Sextortion statistics and schemes 

In 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned citizens about an increase in complaints.

  • From July 31 to September 2021, the FBI dealt with 16,000 sextortion cases
  • Losses from these crimes reached more than $8 million
  • The most targeted groups included people aged between 20 and 39
  • Most victims explained to have met their perpetrators through dating apps and websites
  • Typically, the blackmailers would be the ones instigating the exchange of sexual content
  • Research from 2022 also indicates that men and LGBTQ+ individuals are twice as likely to be victims of sextortion. 
  • Criminals also target minors, with high school students falling victim to sexual blackmail. 

How do criminals obtain information for sextortion schemes? 

Sextortion is a crime frequently committed by people victims know. Usual suspects are people you meet online or ex-partners that commit revenge porn. So, the three main ways for culprits to obtain personal information are as follows:

  • Criminals could instigate the exchange of sexual information or suggest filming themselves while performing sexual acts. 
  • Hackers manage to obtain photos or videos by gaining access to victims’ accounts. Many such incidents involve hacks into social media accounts. 
  • Blackmailers might also claim to have video footage of people watching pornography. Such claims are usually bogus as they would require someone to hack your webcam
  • Perpetrators might also steal victims’ devices like computers and smartphones and exploit information within them. 

Sextortion is illegal 

Sextortion is a severe crime, and culprits face up to seven years in prison and fines of up to $15,000. 

However, if sextortion involves minors, the penalties include 25 years in prison. Fines for these crimes are up to $125 thousand. However, the US states and countries might have differing laws. Governments in other countries can also treat such blackmail differently. 

How long does sextortion last? 

It is difficult to state how long sextortion can last. However, victims admit that threats haunt them for weeks or even years. If victims pay money in exchange for not distributing compromising information, the blackmail likely won’t end

The criminals will never be satisfied and could continue terrorizing victims. So, it is best to never respond to criminals’ ransom demands and threats. 

Recognize people attempting sextortion schemes

Anyone can become a victim of sextortion. Thus, you should know how to recognize a person that might engage in romantic relationships with ulterior motives: 

  • The person instigates the exchange of sexual content. 
  • The communication with the victim likely hopes to establish trust. 
  • The criminal asks about family, friends, or even financial situations. 
  • The person makes excuses against video calls, meaning they could be catfish. 

How to respond to sextortion threats 

Sextortion can trigger paralyzing fear in its victims. The first course of action is to understand that you are a victim of an abusive crime. While your instant reaction might be to delete everything, follow these recommendations instead: 

  1. Consults someone about your situation, be it a parent, friend, or therapist. 
  2. Do not respond to the abusers’ messages or calls.
  3. Never meet the blackmailers’ demands, be it money or sexual favors.  
  4. Collect evidence, take screenshots of your communications, and do not delete anything. 
  5. Contact the appropriate authorities and attempt to find the perpetrator. 
  6. If necessary, join support groups for sextortion victims or seek other help. 

Ignore sextortion emails

Mass email campaigns could distribute sextortion threats to thousands of people. Thus, such attempts to blackmail people are usually bogus. 

Weigh the validity of the claim first, but never answer blackmailers or give in to their requests. So, never reply to blackmailers or meet their demands. 

Instead, report the email and the sender to your email service provider. 

Threats claiming you are the criminal

Blackmail can also include the threats that criminals have implicating information about victims. A common intimidation tactic is to suggest that victims have watched child pornography. 

Such fake claims also typically arrive through email, SMS messages, or rogue pop-up ads. The chances are that it is also a mass campaign, hoping to intimidate targets. 

How to recover from sextortion 

First, victims of sextortion should contact the police and provide all the necessary evidence to punish abusers. However, the trauma and distress can be more challenging to overcome. Sextortion survivors have explained to suffer intimacy and trust issues later in life. 

Thus, seek out professional help that could help ease the feelings of anxiety, fear, and distrust. 

Do not fall victim to sextortion 

You can protect against sextortion by recognizing red flags and adjusting your online behavior. For instance, people you meet online will not always treat you fairly. 

  • Do not share sexual images or videos with anyone, including significant others. 
  • Do not keep sexual content on your smartphone or computer. If you do, lock files and folders to prevent unauthorized access. 
  • Protect accounts with strong passwords and two-factor authentication. 
  • Do not trust strangers on online dating sites and apps. 
  • Do not open unknown attachments that could distribute malware. 
  • Set your social media accounts to private to avoid unwanted visitors. 
  • Cover your webcam when you do not actively use it for meetings. 
  • Enable a VPN when you engage in activities you wish to be more anonymous and private.
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