What is sextortion, and how to avoid it?

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: November 13, 2022 Read time: 14 minutes Disclosure

Sextortion is a growing security threat in the current internet environment. This article explains what it is and how to fight it.

Sneak peek at sextortion

Sextortion is becoming a more frequent security threat in our internet environment. It’s damaging and often attacks minors, making it a grave issue for the victims. Fortunately, there is plenty that you can do to prevent falling prey to this problem if you are aware enough.

Sextortion is a criminal activity. You can think of it as the type of extortion in which the blackmail element has to do with sexual material or activities. Sextortion is becoming a concern in several jurisdictions. It can harm various persons, from minors to adults, males, and females. It has profound psychological effects on its victims, and it can go as far as to cause physical damage too. And an additional problem is the embarrassment it often causes the victim because they can refuse to report it.

As social media keeps growing in popularity, as well as messaging apps and online dating websites and platforms, the exchange of sexually explicit material is not as rare as it once was. And the ubiquitous webcams and phone cams make it easy for any user to create videos (or have them produced at their expense, secretly). So as the fertile ground for sextortion keeps expanding, every internet user needs to become aware of it. Awareness is the first preventive step in this and any other digital security issue.

This guide will explain to you what sextortion is and how it happens. We will also suggest measures to help the reader remain safe against sextortion attempts.

Sextortion: What is it? Who are its targets?

Sextortion is a specific type of extortion in which the criminal forces the victim to provide them with sexual media, sexual favors, or money by threatening to distribute the victim’s confidential material, which could also be sexual.

The criminal will claim to have compromising material involving the victim (sexual videos or pictures, most often). Then, the attacker threats to make them available to family, friends, or the general public through the internet unless the victim gives them even more sexual material, performs sexual services or pays a ransom. These threats are real. According to expert predictions, about half of the criminals will carry out the threat.

While some research is still needed on this subject, it seems that females are the most frequent sextortion victims, especially when the criminal’s goal is to have the victim perform sexual services. Males, on the other hand, seem to be the preferred target when the criminal wants money. It became a recent mainstream discussion topic in the UK, as several sextortion cases led to several male suicides.

Sextortion is an expanding issue

Sextortion is on the rise on a worldwide scale. In the UK alone, the number of sextortion complaints grew by a factor of three from 2015 to 2017. And those numbers consider only reported cases. However, since this is such an embarrassing issue for the victim, many cases remain unreported, so those numbers could be a small fraction of the actual activity.

The criminals seem to like sextortion if you consider how quickly the cases are rising. It attracts them. The embarrassing consequences implied by sextortion threats increase the chances that a victim will pay up if only to avoid having private pictures or videos sent to their friends, family, coworkers, or even the public a large.

Becoming a sextortion victim is more straightforward than other, more traditional, types of extortion. Governments and companies know this, so they’re becoming very concerned. For example, an employee could easily give away his access credentials and other sensitive corporate information that criminals can use in the future.

The military is particularly vulnerable to sextortion because their environment involves constant scrutiny of their behavior. That makes them more likely to comply with a criminal’s demands. That makes sextortion a criminal door to national security and classified information.

The social impact that sextortion can have is enormous. Especially if you consider how often it leads to the victim’s suicide. So it’s hard to exaggerate the concern we should all have about sextortion.

The methods for sextortion

Sextortion can start in many ways. Let’s have a look at the most frequent general scenarios.

1. Catfishing

Catfishing is such a severe issue that we have explained in detail in our guide to catfishing. (You can read it if you want to become aware of it.)

Briefly, catfishing involves somebody spoofing their identity to persuade their victims to trust them. Their fake identity is always beautiful, successful, and relatable to the victim.

2. Email phishing