‘Sextortion’: One of the grimmest cybercrimes is growing

SextortionThreats and demands from online “sextortionists” are very real, but victims are disinclined to report these crimes to either the police or technology companies, preliminary data from a new study show.

If a victim fails to comply with a sextortionists’ demands, perpetrators might threaten to post intimate images of their victims online; send those images to other people the victim knows, including family members, employers, and school officials, or hurt them physically in some way, said Leah Treitman, program manager of Thorn. The nonprofit partners with the tech industry, government, and non-governmental organizations, leveraging technology to combat predatory behavior, rescue victims, and protect children.

“Sextortion” is a growing online crime in which predators target people they already know – most often someone they were in a romantic relationship with – or pretend to be someone they’re not. They then befriend their victims online, gain their trust, persuade the victims to share intimate images of themselves, and then threaten to make those images public – or something even worse – if the victim fails to comply with their demands. And, perpetrators often insist on receiving new and more sexual imagery of their targets, directing the victim to perform certain acts, or appear in a particular way in new photos or videos.

Speaking at the 27th annual Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas last week, Thorn shared preliminary results from a new study on sextortion conducted in partnership with the Crimes Against Children Research Center. The final report will be released in March 2016.

Treitman said the goal of the project is to produce “current, useful and accessible information about the dynamics of sextortion to inform the development of technological (and possibly educational) interventions to disrupt, discourage, and prevent sextortion.” The study, which is still ongoing, seeks to learn more about instances of sextortion through an anonymous, online survey of individuals ages 18 to 25 who have been targets of sextortion. If you or someone you know fits this criteria, you can participate in the survey by going to: Thorn Sextortion Study.

From a technology company’s perspective, some of the most intriguing results are the preliminary data that show respondents often did not report the crimes to their electronic service provider because they “did not think it would help.” This was the most frequently selected reason for victims not reporting, followed closely by feelings of shame or embarrassment.

Reporting can help. And, we want our customers and the general public to be aware of the mechanisms Microsoft has in place to report abuse. Our general report abuse form is available online, and last month we announced a special form to report incidents of so-called “revenge porn,” or conduct more aptly known as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images. The Thorn survey is designed to include revenge porn.

We also emphasize the need for smart and safe online habits and practices, like keeping personal information private, taking care to safeguard one’s online reputation, and approaching new online friends and encounters with a healthy dose of skepticism and common sense. After all, as the Thorn data show, in the digital world, people aren’t always who or what they say they are. Indeed, a majority of respondents to the Thorn survey, who did not know their perpetrator in person, said their first online contact with the individual who turned out to be a sextortionist began with a lie or a deliberate false impression on the predator’s part.

Microsoft applauds Thorn for investing in this valuable research that will undoubtedly inform many in the online safety and cybercrime communities, and we look forward to the release of the final results next year. In the meantime, to learn more about staying safer online generally, visit our website and check out our educational resources at the Microsoft YouthSpark Hub.

At the time of writing of this post, Jacqueline Beauchere’s title was Chief Online Safety Officer.