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Trends Identified in CyberTipline Sextortion Reports


Trends identified in CyberTipline sextortion reports

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline receives reports regarding suspected crimes of sexual exploitation committed against children. Recently, a growing number of reports concern incidents of “sextortion”. Sextortion is a relatively new form of online sexual exploitation in which non-physical forms of coercion are utilized, such as blackmail, to acquire sexual content (photos/videos) of the child, obtain money from the child or engage in sex with the child. Furthermore, sextortion often subsequently results in negative outcomes for the victim. In the CyberTipline reports, boys and girls reported being equally negatively impacted by sextortion and expressed concerns that other children would be targeted by an offender.

To review this form of sexual victimization in greater depth, NCMEC analyzed a subset of sextortion-related CyberTipline reports received between October 2013 through November 2014 (n=310) and found the following results regarding the child victims, the reporters to the CyberTipline and the offenders’ behavior:

Who are the child victims?

  • 76% of the incidents involved female children and 11% involved male children (In 13% of incidents, child gender could not be determined).
  • The average age at the time of the incident was approximately 15 years old, despite a wider age-range for female children (9-17 years old) compared to male children (12-17 years old).
  • In 26% of the reports, it was suspected or known by the reporter that multiple children were targeted by the same offender.

Who are making the reports to the CyberTipline?

  • Of the various report types, self-reports and parent-reports were the most common, comprising 91% of reports for male children and 58% for female children.
    • However, while parents/guardians reported incidents at a similar rate for male (40%) and female children (31%), male children self-reported significantly more (51%) than female children (27%).
    • In addition, while male children were unlikely to have reporters other than themselves or their parents/guardians, female children had a variety of other reporters on their behalf, including online Internet companies, friends and romantic partners.
  • In addition to child gender, child age was also important in determining whether a child would make a report and whether a parent/guardian would make a report.
    • The older a child, the more likely they were to make a self-report; the younger a child, the more likely a parent/guardian was to report on their behalf.
  • Despite the importance of child gender in reporting, self-reports and parent/guardian reports were more strongly determined by a child’s age than whether a child was male or female.

Why, where, when and how is sextortion occurring?

I. Why?

  • Based on the information known by the CyberTipline reporter, sextortion appears to have occurred with one of three primary objectives:
    • To acquire additional, and often increasingly more explicit, sexual content (photos/videos) of the child (78%)
    • To obtain money from the child (7%)
    • To have sex with the child (5%)

II. Where?

  • Sextortion most commonly occurred via phone/tablet messaging apps. 
    • However, sextortion also frequently occurred on social networking sites, in chat rooms and during video chats.
  • 53% of incidents involved multiple online platforms and seemed to indicate a pattern whereby the offender would intentionally and systematically move the communication with the child from one online platform type to another.
    • In a typical incident, the offender would approach the child on a social networking site and then attempt to move the communication with the child to anonymous messaging apps or video chats where he/she would obtain sexually explicit content from the child. These images and videos would then be used as blackmail against the child. For example, the offender threatens to post an explicit video of the child on social media sites that he/she secretly recorded during a video chat unless the child produces additional sexually explicit content or pays money to the offender.

III. When?

  • In 43% of incidents, there was enough information to determine whether sextortion occurred immediately after the offender received content of the child or whether it was delayed. Of these cases in which it was known, most (82%) incidents occurred immediately after the offender obtained sexually explicit content of the child.
    • However, in 18% of these incidents in which there was enough information to determine, the sextortion was delayed up to several years after the offender acquired the sexually explicit material.

IV. How?

  • Many different manipulation tactics were used by offenders, often in combination, to acquire sexual content (photos/videos) of the child, obtain money from the child or have sex with the child. The most common blackmail tactics were threatening to post previously acquired sexual content online (76%), threatening to post previously acquired sexual content online specifically for family and friends to see (26%) and secretly recording sexually explicit videos of the child during video chats and then using it against them (19%).
  • Other tactics used by the offenders include:
    • Reciprocation, whereby the offender coerced the child into providing sexual content by promising reciprocity
    • Developing a bond with the child through flattery and praise
    • Pretending to be younger and/or a female
    • Accessing the child’s account without authorization and stealing sexual content of the child
    • Threatening to create sexual content of the child using digital-editing tools
    • Physically threatening to hurt the child or their family
    • Creating a fake profile as the child and threatening to post sexual content of the child
    • Pretending to work for a modeling agency to obtain sexual content of the child
    • Saving sexually explicit conversations with the child and threatening to post them online
  • While the manipulation tactics varied greatly against female children, one distinct pattern of manipulation emerged for male children. Although male children were coerced in additional ways, the primary method was for male children to think they were communicating with a female, to engage in what they thought was “reciprocal” sexual behavior and, after being unknowingly recorded, to be threatened with having their content posted on social media sites if they did not provide money to the offender within a very short period of time.