While you may not have heard the term before, “sextortion”—or “image abuse”—takes place all too often. This form of blackmail occurs when a person threatens to expose explicit images of an individual to make them do something, such as pay money to the blackmailer.
Unfortunately, college and graduate school students are prime targets for sextortion, and students at Case Western Reserve are no exception. According to the university’s Office of Equity, every few weeks CWRU Police and the office learn of another student experiencing sextortion—and, likely, the actual number of victims is much higher.
Read on to learn what you need to know about sextortion to keep yourself safe.
1. Things can go wrong—even if you trust someone.
When deciding to take and share intimate pictures, it’s important to know things can go wrong—even if you trust the recipient. Relationships can change or end, and people may make threats out of anger or for another reason. In many cases, the perpetrator, who may be a stranger or a former romantic partner, aims to harass, embarrass, control and/or exploit the victim. Sometimes, explicit images are forwarded on to friends. However it unfolds, sextortion is a damaging, unfair betrayal of trust.
2. Sending photos of yourself is risky.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), most victims of sextortion who do not have relationships with the perpetrators report their initial contact as being mutual and made using dating websites and apps. Soon after, the perpetrator requests the interaction be moved from the website or app to another messaging platform and instigates the exchange of sexually explicit material before encouraging the victim to participate via video chat or by sending their own explicit photos.
Immediately after the victim complies, the fraudster blackmails the victim and demands money to prevent the release of the photos or videos on social media. Often, they gain access to the victim’s social media or contact information and threaten to send the images to the victim’s family and friends. So when deciding whether or not to engage with such requests, remember: You can easily lose control over what happens to those images and videos.
3. If you’re a victim, it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.
If you think you’re a potential victim, the most important thing is to not blame yourself. When you sent the photos or video, you thought you could trust the person you sent them to. It’s not your fault that this person has fallen short of your expectations—and threats are never OK.
It’s also important to remember you’re not alone: Last year, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received more than 18,000 sextortion complaints reporting that blackmailers were paid more than $13.6 million. Part of the reason sextortion is effective is because victims are ashamed or embarrassed. But sextortion happens often, in part because people don’t tell others about their experiences.
4. You have recourse if you’re a victim.
If you’re a victim of sextortion, there are several things you can do:
- Tell someone you trust: Tell a trusted source what you are going through, even if you are frightened of being judged, and come up with a solution. The Office of Equity at CWRU can support you by giving you action steps to stop the abusive and coercive acts, as well as to connect you to resources on campus to support you through this experience. You can contact the Office of Equity at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216.368.3066 or by completing this form.
- Don’t give in to threats: If the sextortionist is demanding you to do something in exchange for keeping explicit content under wraps, do not give in. Whether the demand is for money, for more explicit content, to resume a prior relationship or to receive a “favor” of any kind, don’t give in. Once you pacify a blackmailer, that person has reason to come back to you again. And again.
- Keep a record of the evidence: You may want to forget the incident and move on. However, you can protect yourself and others by gathering evidence. Take screenshots of the messages or posts making or relating to the threat. Try to include the time and date in the screenshots. Even if you don’t report the situation to anyone right away, if the threats continue, you may want this evidence in the future.
- Report and block your exploiter once you’ve gathered evidence: When you’ve got the records, report the account to the appropriate social media platform, if applicable. This will get the ball rolling on the account being taken down, perhaps even before they have actually posted anything you don’t want to be seen. Then block the person. Understand that professional sextortionists usually connect with a victim across more than one platform, using different names. This enables the sextortionist to continue the threats or access the victim’s contacts after being blocked on the platform on which the threats were first made. To stop the threats, you may need to block people on multiple platforms with whom you connected at about the same time as when you connected with the blackmailer.
- Go to the police: Sextortion is a crime. If someone threatens to share an image or video of you, they are violating the law. The CWRU Police Department is experienced with assisting students who are dealing with sextortion. You can reach them through the non-emergency line, 216.368.3300, or by email at email@example.com.
5. There are things you can do to limit your chances of becoming a victim.
Review your privacy settings so you’re in control of who can see your online information. If you get a message or email from someone you don’t know who claims to have hacked your device or account and threatens to release private images, it may be a scam. They might even use one of your current or former passwords to trick you into thinking it’s real. Despite what they’re telling you, they may not have access to your images.
Use strong passwords and change them regularly to help protect your personal information, and use two-factor authentication wherever possible to secure your accounts.
6. If you’re a victim of sextortion, emotional support is out there.
If you’ve been a victim of sextortion, you might feel upset, anxious, betrayed or angry. Remember, you did nothing wrong by expressing yourself through images or video. If you’re looking for ways to manage your feelings, consider making an appointment with a counselor at University Health and Counseling Services through myhealthconnect.case.edu or by calling 216.368.5872. Students can also make no-cost, telecounseling appointments through TimelyCare, including evenings and weekends.
Learn more about sextortion and Case Western Reserve’s Office of Equity.