What is Sextortion? How to Prevent Online Blackmailing

A hand asking for money from a scared girl
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What is Sextortion? A Brief Guide

Sextortion is a form of online blackmail involving the use of sexual images or other sensitive content to scare a victim into giving in to a perpetrator’s demands. Usually, the sextorter will demand money, sexual favors, or more sexual images from the victim. Sexually explicit content is often gathered by catfishing or by using malware to control the victim’s webcam.

The best way to avoid sextortion is by exerting caution during contact with strangers. Don’t click on links and attachments from sources you don’t know and NEVER share sexually explicit images with strangers!

Are you a victim of sextortion? Then keep these tips in mind:

  1. Talk to someone you trust.
  2. Never give in to the perpetrator’s demands and don’t contact them again.
  3. Collect all evidence of the crime.
  4. Press charges.

For more information on sextortion and tips on how to prevent it, check out the complete article down below.

Imagine: on an otherwise unremarkable day, you get an email from an unknown user. The message claims that they kept track of the porn sites you’ve visited and that they recorded video evidence with your webcam as proof.

The above situation is an example of sextortion. This malicious act involves extorting victims by threatening to share sexually explicit images or videos of them. Do these “sextorters” actually have these images of their victims? How can you make sure you don’t become a victim? What are the different types of sextortion? All of these questions and more will be answered in this article.

What is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a crime that involves blackmailing a victim. The extorter threatens to share images, videos, or information about the victim’s sexual preferences unless the victim pays up or engages in more sexual acts. Usually, the perpetrator will threaten to share the sexual content with the victim’s family, colleagues, friends, and other acquaintances. Alternatively, the content might be uploaded to a large (pornographic) online platform.

Generally, sextorters know how to invoke a great deal of fear in the victim. They might show the images or a screenshot of a specifically explicit conversation. Moreover, they often skim the victim’s social media accounts to find out about their family members and friends. In other words, they will let the victim know they can destroy their reputation (with their loved ones) at any moment — even though that’s often a lie.

How Sextortion Works: Obtaining Explicit Images of Victims

There are many cases in which sextorters are just bluffing: they don’t actually have any sensitive videos or images of their victims, but use fear as a motivator. This isn’t always the case, however. Some perpetrators obtain explicit images of victims in different ways:

  • Through sexting: the perpetrator might have sexually explicit chats with the victim and get them to send images of themselves, often by sending stolen pictures and videos first.
  • By taking control of the victim’s webcam: this often happens without their knowledge. A sextorter might do this by tricking the victim into downloading a file that contains malware. This is exactly how Luis Mijangos obtained explicit content from many of his hundreds of victims.
  • Through threats that force the victim to perform sexual acts in front of their webcam: in this case, the sextortion scheme has likely been going on for some time already. This strategy is usually used to obtain further material after initial blackmail.

Different Sextortion Scams

There are many different strategies sextorters use to get their victims to give in to their demands. If you can recognize some of the more common types and characteristics of sextortion, you can prevent them. That’s why we’ll go over a few of them down below.

Catfishing: the start of most sextortion scams

What is catfishing iconA lot of sextortion cases start with another type of online attack: catfishing. When catfishing, the perpetrator will pose as someone else, usually someone either very attractive, like a beautiful young woman or a handsome and rich businessman, or relatable, like someone with similar interests as the victim.

Proficient catfishing sextorters operate in a very shrewd way. They create convincing fake social media profiles with stolen photos and elaborate profile texts.

After creating some profiles, the perpetrator will often approach many users on different social media and dating platforms. They will send friend requests, like their profiles, or drop them a message. As soon as a victim reacts, they’ll start chatting them up to gain their trust and gather information. Then it’s on to the next step: gathering sexually explicit images of their victim to use in a sextortion scheme.

Facebook sextortion

Facebook sextortion scam iconFacebook sextortion is a popular subtype of catfishing sextortion. It often starts with a friend request by an unknown user. Alternatively, they might send a direct message via Facebook Messenger. After chatting up their victim, the catfisher will ask for explicit images or videos. If this happens to you and you give in, you will most likely find yourself extorted for money or more sexual images or acts, with the criminal using your pictures and videos as leverage.

Fortunately, many Facebook scams and attempts to make some quick cash are very blatant and easy to recognize. Poorer executed versions of Facebook extortion generally involve a person that seems “too good to be true.” You might have come across them: friend requests from profiles with a picture of a scantily clad girl and an explicit bio.

Nevertheless, with so many shrewd cybercriminals and social engineers around, there are also some incredibly convincing fake profiles to be found. As such, the dangers of Facebook sextortion shouldn’t be underestimated.

How to report an account on Facebook

Facebook takes a strong stance against sextortion and gives you the option to report profiles that engage in this kind of behavior. You can do this by following these steps:

  1. Click on the three dots next to a profile or post.
  2. Choose the option that contains the word “report” (the exact phrasing differs per situation).
  3. Answer Facebook’s requests for information about the malpractice you wish to report.

Facebook account three dots dropdown menu, option Find support or report profile emphasized screenshot

Sextortion email campaigns

Sextortion email campaigns iconSextorters might also use so-called sextortion email campaigns. These campaigns are used very widely: anyone can become a victim. Attackers will draft an email meant to invoke fear and send it to hundreds of people.

In the email, the perpetrator will generally claim to have access to the victim’s webcam. They’ll say they used that access to film the victim while they were engaging in sexual acts. Alternatively, the attacker could threaten to release a list of adult websites visited by the victim. The criminal will demand payment using an (almost) untraceable method, such as Bitcoin.

Here’s an example of a sextortion email:

Example of a Sextortion email scam

In some cases, this email even appears to have been sent from the victim’s own email address. This might be used as “proof” that the attacker has access to your computer and accounts. This, however, isn’t true.

These sextortion emails are most likely fake. The attacker doesn’t actually have any pictures or videos of you. Remember that hundreds, if not thousands, of these emails are sent to people just like you. The criminal merely hopes to scare a handful of recipients into submission.

Another danger to be aware of when it comes to sextortion emails is malware. Criminals can include links or attachments in their emails that contain dangerous software, such as keyloggers.

When you get a sextortion email like this, keep these three rules in mind:

  1. Don’t pay the extorter anything.
  2. Don’t click on any links or attachments.
  3. Don’t engage with the sender.

You can find more tips on preventing sextortion and what to do if you’re a victim down below.

Sextortion by your ex or someone you know

Sextortion by your ex or someone you know iconSo far we’ve mainly dealt with sextortion scams by unknown criminals. However, even people you know can take part in sextortion. Any person who has access to sexually explicit information about or images of you, such as an ex, could blackmail you.

Granted, revenge porn is much more common in and after relationships. However, there have been situations where sextorters blackmailed their partner into staying with them or providing them with more sexual images or sexual favors. This kind of sextortion is much more personal and takes away the need for catfishing or spam emails.

The best way to prevent sextortion by someone you know is to be careful when it comes to sharing sexual images of yourself. Of course, anyone who chooses to use compromising images of you as a form of blackmail is in the wrong, but prevention can help avoid a lot of future headaches.

How Common is Sextortion?

Sextortion happens a lot among teenagers, which is why most sextortion studies focus on this age group. A 2020 study of 5,568 U.S. middle and high school students states that about five percent reported being a victim of sextortion. Moreover, about three percent admitted to having committed sextortion in the past.

The same study found that:

  • Men make up the majority of perpetrators, but are also more often victims of sextortion.
  • Non-heterosexual teenagers are targeted more often.
  • Students sextorting others were more likely to have been victims in the past themselves.

Of course, sextortion can happen to people of all ages, despite young people being a common target group. Therefore, we should all know how to recognize and prevent sextortion.

Even so, the fact that young people are targeted so often is worrrying. After all, any sexual images shared of people below a certain age are considered child pornography.

Consequences for Victims

The consequences for victims of sextortion are far-reaching. According to a report by the National Children’s Alliance, one in four victims sought medical care or mental health care after being sextorted. Keep in mind that that number would likely be much higher if everyone who needed care, but didn’t get it was included as well. Furthermore, one in eight victims reported having to move to a different location to be able to live a normal life again.

Sometimes victims even feel so hopeless they decide to end their life. This is exactly what happened to a teenager from Northern Ireland, who committed suicide only hours after a sextorter published private pictures of him in 2015.

Perpetrators are not just negatively impacting their victim’s life, but might ruin their own as well. Many jurisdictions hand out serious punishments for sextortion. Case in point: Lucas Chansler, one of the most notorious sextorters in US history, received a prison sentence of 105 years in November 2014.

Sextortion has serious (potential) consequences for all parties involved. As such, the best thing to do for both perpetrator and victim is to stay as far away from it as possible.

How to Prevent Sextortion

Considering the consequences and the stress victims go through, it’s paramount to prevent sextortion. But how do we do that when so much of our love lives happens online these days? Here are some tips to keep you from becoming the next sextortion victim:

Infographic showing how to prevent sextortion

  • Post as little personal information about yourself as possible.
  • Use your social media privacy settings to keep your data private. You can, for example, hide your friends and certain profile info on Facebook. Also check your settings on InstagramTwitter, and any other social media accounts you have.
  • Use a nickname on dating sites. This makes it more difficult for sextorters to find out your identity and discover who your family, friends, and acquaintances are.
  • Never accept friend or follow requests from people you don’t know.
  • Don’t click on links and download files from strangers and be careful with unexpected attachments from people you know, too.
  • Cover your webcam when you’re not using it. There are some very cheap webcam covers you can use for this. When you’re using your webcam, you simply slide the cover to the side, and then you cover up the webcam again once finished. Similar solutions exist for smartphone selfie cameras.
  • Install good antivirus software with built-in email protection, such as Avast. Good email protection should help you filter out some (potentially) dangerous emails, such as sextortion emails that contain dangerous files and links. Good antivirus software will also protect you against other types of scams.

How to stay safe when chatting with a stranger online

If you do find yourself chatting with someone you’ve just met, there are some things you can do to protect yourself against sextortion:

  • Use Google reverse image search to find out if the (profile) pictures used by someone online really belong to them. If a lot of similar-looking pictures of some glamour model pop up, this is probably a red flag.
  • Do some online research to see if everything your new contact is saying checks out. If the person you’re chatting to makes claims about their education or big accomplishments, for instance, you can often verify these online. This might not always be a fool-proof method, however, as it’s very easy to lie about who you are and what you’ve done on most social platforms. This brings us to the next tip.
  • Trust your instincts. Does this person seem too good to be true? Then they most likely are.

Tips for Parents

Online dating and chatting are prevalent among young people. Unfortunately, teenagers also often become victims (or perpetrators) of sextortion. We have some basic tips for parents to follow to help children stay safe from sextortion:

  • Let your children know they can always come to you if they have any questions or doubts regarding their sexuality, online dating, or sextortion. Make clear that, if they’re a victim of sextortion, they can talk to you without you getting angry or punishing them — even if they feel like it’s their own fault. Also give them the opportunity to talk to another trusted adult, if they would rather do that.
  • Try to be aware of what they’re doing online. A good way to do so is by having regular conversations with your child(ren) about what they’re up to, without coming across as judgemental. Judging them will likely make them less inclined to share details about their (online) lives with you.
  • Discuss sextortion threats with your children, so they know when to ask for help. At the very least discuss online risks like catfishing, Facebook (messenger) sextortion, and sextortion email scams. You can refer to online resources, such as this article, for help.
  • Discuss the potential consequences of sharing information about themselves, including their sexuality, online. Similarly, make sure they understand how horrible they can make others feel by engaging in sextortion and, of course, that it’s illegal in many jurisdictions.

If you’re a parent and you’re looking for more resources on online safety for children, our article “How to Keep Your Children Safe Online” is a great place to start.

Sextortion: What to Do if You’re a Victim

It’s nothing short of horrible to be a sextortion victim. Fortunately, there are a few tips that can help improve or even resolve the situation:

Infographic showing what to do if you are a victim of sextortion

  1. Remember you’re not alone. You might feel ashamed of what’s happening to you, but it’s crucial to talk to someone you trust. Not only are two people generally better at coming up with solutions than one, but talking will also likely make you feel calmer and more level-headed, helping you to decide on your next steps. You can even talk to someone anonymously by contacting the Crisis Text Line.
  2. Never give in to the demands of the sextorter. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the sextorter will stop if you “pay up.” In fact, by providing them with more compromising images, sexual favors, or money, you’re helping the perpetrator assert their power over you, meaning they will most likely continue blackmailing you. The best thing to do is to not contact the sextorter again.
  3. Collect the evidence. Take screenshots of the conversations you’ve had with the perpetrator. Also, keep a record of any fake profiles used by the sextorter, as well as their contact details. Make sure important information, such as complete URLs and any shared links, are visible. All of this information will come in handy at the next step: pressing charges.
  4. Press charges. In many jurisdictions, blackmail and extortion are considered very serious offenses. If that’s the case where you live, you should contact your local law enforcement and press charges.

If you live in the US (mainland, Hawai, Puerto Rico, or Alaska), you can contact the FBI in case of sextortion. You can do so by contacting your local FBI field office, calling 1-800-225-5324 (for “major cases”), or reporting it online at tips.fbi.gov.

If you live in the UK, you can call 0300 123 2040 to report the crime to Action Fraud, the UK’s National Fraud & Cyber Crime Reporting Centre.

For official help in any other part of the world, look for helplines or national complaint centers in your area or ask your local police office.

Stay Safe and Report Sextortion

Stay safe and report Sextortion iconSextortion can have severe consequences for both victim and perpetrator. It’s a serious form of cybercrime and, as such, we encourage victims to contact law enforcement, press charges, and collect any evidence of the crime.

Of course, it’s better to prevent it in the first place, which you can do by adopting smart practices, such as covering your webcam when not in use, being careful about what you post online, and never excepting friend requests from people you don’t know.

Feel free to check out the rest of our cybercrime section to protect yourself against other online threats.

Sextortion: Frequently Asked Questions

Below you’ll find an FAQ with common and important questions about sextortion. Simply click on a question to see the answer. If your question isn’t there, just contact us by leaving a reply below. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Sextortion is a type of online blackmail where the perpetrator demands money, sexual favors, or more sexual images of his victim. To get their way, the sextorter will threaten to share explicit images, videos, or conversations of the victim with friends, family, or the internet. If you want to learn more about sextortion and what to do to prevent it, read this article.

Here are some useful tips to prevent sextortion:

  • Don’t share too much information about yourself online.
  • Use nicknames on dating sites and, ideally, don’t connect them to your other social media accounts.
  • Cover your webcam when you’re not using it.
  • Only click on links and downloadable attachments from senders you trust.
  • Install good anti-malware software to detect suspicious emails and files that might compromise your PC and its webcam.

For more tips, read our full article on sextortion.

If you’re worried about becoming a Facebook sextortion victim, follow these tips to help you stay safe:

  • Never accept a friend request from someone you don’t know, especially if they have few to no (common) friends.
  • Use Facebook’s privacy features to hide your personal information, at least from strangers.
  • Be careful of Facebook Messenger sextortion. If you want to chat with a stranger who just dropped you a message, realize a screengrab of your conversation is easily made. In other words, it’s not just images and videos that can be used against you.

Being targeted by a sextorter is frightening, especially when they have sexual content they can blackmail you with. Here are some tips on what to do if you’re a victim:

  1. Don’t meet their demands! There is no guarantee they’ll stop blackmailing you. In fact, they’ll likely continue if they feel they can push you around.
  2. Talk to someone you trust or an anonymous service such as the Crisis Help Line.
  3. Collect as much evidence as possible. You can take screenshots of chats in which the perpetrator is blackmailing you, for instance.
  4. Press charges.

For more information, have a look at this article about sextortion.

Tech journalist
Nathan is an internationally trained journalist and has a special interest in the prevention of cybercrime, especially where vulnerable groups are concerned. For VPNoverview.com he conducts research in the field of cybersecurity, internet censorship, and online privacy. He also contributed to developing our rigorous VPN testing and reviewing procedures using evidence-based best practices.