It was inevitable that the number of sextortion cases reaching the public’s attention would climb as the spread of sexting and sexcam sessions continues unabated.
Sextortion – the combination of the words “sex” and “extortion isn’t a web phenomenon, extortionists and blackmailersi have used their knowledge of other’s infidelities, or possession of compromising images, videos, phone calls, and letters since close to the dawn of man. Perhaps the most recent public example was when a former CBS producer threatened to disclose David Letterman’s history of affairs unless Letterman paid him $2 million.
But the web has certainly increased access to the types of content and communications that many would rather not have exposed, and there is no shortage of slime-balls hoping to leverage that reluctance towards exposure for their benefit.
A few recent internet sextortion cases in the news should give a wake up call to anyone who has been foolish enough to place themselves in a compromising position, or thinks there is little risk in doing so in the future.
Case 1: The paraplegic programmer who, over a two year period, victimized at least 186 women and 44 girls according to the FBI who became involved in the case in 2009. According to the Forbes article More Details Emerge On ‘Sextortion’ Hacker Suspect, 31-year-old Mexican native, and Santa Ana, Calif. resident, Luis Mijangos, gained control of user’s computers by using Trojans disguised as songs on peer-to-peer file sharing networks. Once he took control of the PC, he would search for sexually explicit photographs and financial information, and attempt to use what he found to further extort pornographic videos from his victims.
According to the news story, the creep is also accused of “using keyloggers to gain access to social networking sites, e-mail, credit card numbers, and so forth to gain further information to perpetuate the scheme as well as make purchases. He sent malware via instant messenger to the contacts of his victims to infect more computers, tallying more than 100 infected in all.”
Case 2: The 19-year-old punk from Maryland who captured photos of a 17-year-old girl flashing her breasts on a webcam in an internet chat room and threatened to post the pictures to her MySpace friends unless she posed for more explicit pictures and videos for him. The story, reported by the Associated Press, details how Treavor Shea of Mechanicsville, Maryland began sending threatening e-mails to the young lady and how, under the threat of humiliation in front of her friends on MySpace, she on at least two occasions did pose for more explicit pictures and videos before involving law enforcement.
Case 3: Auburn University graduate and church choir boy Jonathan Vance, of Alabama has received an 18 year sentence for attempting to extort nude photos of at least 50 teenage girls and young women in three states. The story by the Birmingham News reports that the 24 year-old perp admitted to sending threatening e-mails on Facebook and MySpace demanding nude photos from victims in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
Case 4: Boy who poses as a girl. 18-year-old Anthony Stancl of New Berlin Wisconsin, pretended to be a female on Facebook to trick male classmates into sending him photos. He convinced at least 31 boys in his high school to send him naked cell phone pictures. He then blackmailed at least 7 of the boys – ages 15-19 – into performing sex acts by threatening to expose the original nude photos to the rest of the school if they did not meet his demands. The Journal Sentinel reported that more than 300 naked photos and movie clips of New Berlin boys and another 600 professionally made pornographic movies involving children were found on the computer.
This was not the first time that Stancl has been in trouble with the law because of sexual crimes. During his sentencing hearing, prosecutors noted that Stancl had been convicted of having sexual contact with a 3-year-old boy when he was just 13-years-old.
There is no system or entity that tracks this form of crime specifically, and most unfortunately will not get reported. But for every one case of extortion, there are thousands of cases where disgruntled friends, ex’s, and others simply choose to be vicious and publicize sexualized images of others to watch their humiliation.
And with the Increase in Sexting Among Teens AND Their Parents expect to see more of this type of crime.
Protecting your kids – and yourselves
There are three aspects to any discussion about sexual actions online – whether that discussion is with youth or adults:
A) Why no one should participate in sexual exchanges online. Focus on helping youth see past their naïveté surrounding the implications of sending sexual messages, photos, videos, chats, or describing sexual activities they’ve been doing offline. Any of these actions can be, and likely will be, something they regret at some point in the future, even if they aren’t being extorted. Help youth understand that:
- Once an image has been shared, the sender has lost all control of where that will be distributed.
- The girl- or boyfriend of today, is highly likely to share it with friends (a main point of having the photo for most youth is to show people you have it).
- When breakups occur, the malicious dissemination of an ex’s nude image(s) is an all too common experience.
- The humiliation caused by having the victim’s image(s) disseminated can be devastating. Simply knowing their ‘private’ photo is seen and shared by potentially millions of people – possibly including family members, school teachers, their religious leaders, neighbors, and pedophiles – and that the image may haunt them forever can be overwhelming. In several extreme, tragic cases, girls like Jessica Logan, and Hope Witsell have committed suicide.
- The photos may be used for blackmail or sextortion as in the cases listed above.
- The photos may be classified as child pornography, and the image taker, the image recipient, and any other recipients may be charged and registered as sex offenders – a label that will follow them through life. “Sexting” Leads to Child Porn Charges for Teens, ‘Sexting’ Teens May Face Child Porn Charges
- The photos may carry consequences that include getting kicked off of teams, squads, and leadership roles in schools and extracurricular programs. And may result in the loss of scholarships – or cause that the student not be considered for scholarships. Teens may also lose their jobs.
- The photos may increase the likelihood of becoming a victim of physical abuse.
B) Getting help if youth (or adults) are the target of sextortion. Unfortunately, not everyone will heed the advice to refrain from sexual exchanges online, and so understanding how to minimize the damage is critical – whether it be for your child, or to give them the information that will help another child.
- Extortionists extort. If they have one compromising image, video, or piece of information and they see opportunity in threatening a victim with it, giving them what they ask for is just providing more ammunition, It will not stop the exploitation – in most cases it will simply allow the extortionist to increase their demands.
- Call it extortion, sextortion, or blackmail, it’s illegal.
- Get help. For minors, no matter how embarrassing the incident, parents will in most cases be the best place to first turn to for help. Depending on the situation, it may be resolved through parents, or with school involvement. Where sexual demands are made, it is a matter for immediate law enforcement involvement.
- Parents, this puts a clear responsibility on you to create an environment where your children can be safe coming to you for help. In these kinds of situations some people are tempted to blame the victim, that’s off target. They are the victim of a crime and they need your help with that crime. The question of why they chose to share compromising photos, video, or information is entirely separate and should be handled separately – and calmly.
- Youth, if your parents aren’t going to help you through this, get a teacher, your religious leader, or another trusted adult to help you. Few teens – and fewer younger kids are comfortable going to the police themselves.
C) Extorting others is WRONG. Unfortunately, for a segment of the population, wielding power over others is alluring. But it’s never right, and if it becomes extortion, or blackmail, it is illegal. The penalties for sexual extortion are even more severe.
- Help teach that this is unacceptable behavior because it harms others.
- If the welfare of others isn’t something your child – or you – care about, get professional help. And consider the following:
- Extortion and blackmail are federal crimes.
- Anthony Stancl faced 293 years in prison if he had been convicted of the full 12 counts against him. His actual sentence is 15-years in prison and another 13-years of extended supervision for his crimes. He will be 33 before he leaves prison, and 46 before he is no longer under legal supervision. He will always carry the registered sex offender label.
- Jonathan Vance was sentenced to 18 years in prison, making him 42 when he is released. He will be a registered sex offender, and will serve the rest of his life on supervised probation. He will be barred from having any contact with minors, and will only have restricted computer access.
- The cases of Treavor Shea and Luis Mijangos have yet to go to trial, but Luis Mijangos also faces deportation.
[i] The terms “extortion” and “blackmail” are commonly used interchangeably, even though they are distinct concepts. According to the definition provided by criminal-law.freeadvice.com
, extortion means forcing someone to do something, usually give up something valuable under threats of injury, death or other illegal harm. Blackmail means specifically obtaining something of value under the threat to disclose something shameful or disreputable about a person. This can be true even if it would not have been illegal to simply make the reputation-damaging information public.