Sextortion: A threat for everybody, teenagers in particular

What is sextortion, and how can we protect ourselves and our children?

Blackmail is a crime as old as time itself and modern technology has helped it — like so many other things — explode. Criminals relieve their victims of money in a great variety of ways, but hacking communications such as text messages and webcams brings ruthless efficiency to a highly personal type of crime called sextortion.

Sextortion, or sexual blackmail, consists of a threat to reveal intimate information about a victim unless the victim pays money to the extorter. In this connected, digital age, the information might include snippets of sexual text messages (sexts), intimate photos, even videos. The crooks typically demand money, but sometimes they’re after more compromising material — send more or I’ll expose you.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about sextortion is that the vast majority of victims are teenagers — not a demographic known for having a lot of money to throw around. But teens sadly make excellent victims for sextortion.

The teenage years are a time for figuring out how to find and cultivate new kinds of relationships — and generally without a reliable road map. Teens are also beginning to forge their own paths and question authority, but they have yet to fully develop an adult’s understanding of consequences.

The result can be a cybercriminal’s dream: information that should be kept extremely secure isn’t and people who are emotionally vulnerable can be easily shamed. Perhaps that is why an estimated 70% of the victims are teenagers with the majority of those being female.

The perpetrators may hack accounts or try worming their way into a potential victim’s favour and get them to send incriminating material directly. The next step is threatening to make the info public.

Victims obey. They are often ashamed and afraid of public condemnation, and asking for help means revealing secrets they are desperate to keep secure. Sextortion can lead to serious psychological traumas or even suicide attempts.

As with so many issues affecting teenagers, communication is key.  However, it is also a technological problem, and we have some tips that can help keep you and your family safe.

Protect yourself and your kids from sextortion

1. Understand that anything you share online can be made public and try to make sure your children and teenagers understand this. It could be used by hackers or a trusted friend – the point is you never really know how information will be used, once it’s public.  Chatting with strangers generally amps up the risk, but consider anything you send online public and readable by everyone from your best friend to your teachers to your grandparents.

2. Practice good cybersecurity. Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication to help protect your social networks, messaging programs, and e-mail. Always run up-to-date security software. Note that Kaspersky Internet Security protects your webcam from unauthorised access.

3. Stay alert and learn about new threats. Crimes such as sextortion are everybody’s problem. Share information about threats — forewarned is forearmed.

4. Talk to your kids about Internet scams and cybercriminals. Yes, it can be hard to speak about sex and sextortion with your kids, but they need to know. Find out how their school handles cybersecurity and cyber-safety education — perhaps they have some helpful materials about discussing this issue at home.