[Urgent Alert] 5 Critical Steps to Shield Your Teens from Rising Sextortion

Evangelists-Anna CollardA few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the 8th grade of a high-school here in Cape Town and talk to the students about cybersecurity, social media, and emerging technology.

It was a very rewarding experience but also an eye-opener with regards to the level of cyber awareness amongst adolescents.

None of the kids in the room have heard about the sextortion threat before. Sextortion is a form of organized crime targeting teenagers worldwide that demands greater awareness and preventive measures. 

In sextortion attacks cybercriminals pose as peers or love interests online, typically using fake accounts on Instagram or similar platforms with the sole goal to trick victims into sharing explicit images or videos of themselves. They do this by first love-bombing the victim (“OMG, you are so beautiful, I'm obsessed”) and attempt to establish a rapport.

They soon start sharing fake nude pictures of themselves first, coercing their targets into sending one of themselves. Once they have the material, they start blackmailing their victim by threatening them to release the images to all their friends and contacts, unless they pay up. 

Tragic stories of young victims of sextortionists like 16-year-old Murray Dowey from Scotland, a 12-year-old Canadian boy, and 16-year-old Jordan DeMay from the US, who committed suicide highlight the devastating consequences of this awful crime. Sextortion preys on the vulnerabilities of young people and exploits their trust.

These financially-motivated crimes are typically carried out by organized crime groups, with a disproportionate number of cases involving kids aged 14 to 18. These groups have no scruples, follow well thought-out scripts and target multiple teenagers at a time. 

Teenagers are particularly vulnerable due to their prolific use of social media, emotional insecurities, and still-developing decision-making skills. Open communication between parents and children; and instilling a critical mindset towards online interactions are of the utmost importance. In addition to cultivating strong, trusting relationships with teenagers, parents and educators should warn about engaging with strangers online and to apply strong privacy settings on social media accounts to diminish the risks linked to cybercrime in general. 

Social media platforms like Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) should implement stronger safety features, such as making teenagers’ followers and following lists private by default. 

The sextortion epidemic is a complex, transnational issue that requires a multi-pronged approach. By raising awareness, promoting digital safety education amongst both kids, parents and educators, and encouraging tech companies to prioritize user protection, we can work towards a safer digital future for our children. 

5 Critical Steps To Shield Your Teens

  1. Develop your own understanding of this type of financially motivated extortion by organized crime groups.
  2. Raise the awareness of teens in your (immediate) family and discuss this topic with them early one-on-one.
  3. In case of an incident #1: alert the right authority.
  4. In case of an incident #2: avoid victim-blaming and help them get the images removed.
  5. Encourage reporting and support. Create an environment where teens feel safe to speak up. 

For more information, please refer to the NCA's (UK National Crime Agency) warning message on financially motivated sexual extortion here

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