Why sextortion is the 'fastest growing crime that no one knows about'
Predators pose as teens online to coerce young girls and boys into sharing nude photos or videos of themselves
By Taylor Hartz
HARTFORD, Conn. — The Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team, a pilot task force launched this summer in Hartford, is designed to directly help those who have been victims of sex trafficking in Hartford, West Hartford, East Hartford, Bloomfield, Glastonbury, Windsor, South Windsor and Manchester, with a goal of creating a statewide model.
As the task force develops its plan of best practices to help victims recover from their trafficking experiences and help prevent more people from being trafficked, HART Coordinator Jennifer Suroviak said that more and more sex trafficking is starting online. Sextortion, said Suroviak, can be “a gateway to sex trafficking” that opens up in the palm of the victim’s hand.
Teaching teens about online literacy and ensuring they have a trusted adult they can turn to if they are reached by a predator online, said Suroviak, is key in preventing sextortion and sex trafficking from starting in your home.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there was a 98% increase of online enticement reports — which includes crimes like sextortion — from 2019 to 2020.
“Sexual predators have found a way to extort children in the privacy of their homes,” said John Shehan, vice president of the Exploited Children Division for The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in a statement. “They don’t need a key to get in; just a device connected to the Internet. They secretly coerce their underage victims to produce sexual images, to have sex with them or give them money. "
The center sees “the devastating impact of these crimes every day,” said Shehan.
In 2018, the center’s cyber tip line received 12,070 reports of online enticement crimes, which include sextortion. But by 2021, that number had skyrocketed to 44,155 reports, data shows.
According to the center, overall reports to their cybercrime tip line increased from 16.9 million in 2019 to 29.3 million in 2021. Since 2008, over 1,000 children have been referred to DCF as possible victims of child trafficking in Connecticut at rates that have “exploded” in recent years, according to Suroviak.
For years, Suroviak said the Department of Children and Families’ 24/7 hotline received about 200 reports per year that involved a child being a suspected, high-risk or confirmed victim of sex trafficking. In 2021, That number jumped up about 17 percent.
Between January and March of 2020, there were 22 suspected, high-risk or confirmed victims of child sex trafficking reported. But during that same time in 2021, that number rose to 61; and in 2022 it soared to 76, Suroviak said.
“What we’ve seen is that there’s been a huge explosion of recruitment by traffickers of children and traffickers online. Because for children, by and large, that is where they are at. And it’s a minimally regulated, easy to get away with place to approach children,” said Suroviak.
Suroviak said sextortion begins with a grooming process in which the predator creates an online persona, usually by lurking on a child’s social media profile, connecting with their friend group, joining a gaming group or coming into a chat room where they can look for a particular child’s interests or vulnerabilities.
Keeping profiles locked down and private, said experts, is key to keeping that personal information that they can prey on protected. Parents should also remind their children not to accept friend requests from people they don’t know, even if their profile says they’re from their school or the person is friends with their friends. That 15-year-old boy sending them a friend request may actually be a full-grown predator.
A new documentary shown in Hartford explores the rise of “sextortion” cyber crimes targeting teens as the pilot task force in the region is helping victims of sex and labor trafficking, who experts say are being victimized online more and more often.
Children as targets
The newly released documentary, “Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic,” takes a deep dive into the cyber-universe of grooming and extortion that targets children — mostly ages 8 to 16 — on their devices while they’re in their bedrooms, the backseat of their parents’ cars or even at school.
The documentary, recently shown at The Bushnell in one of its debut screenings, follows the unsealed federal case of United States Navy pilot Daniel Harris, who was convicted of targeting young girls by posing as a teenage boy on social media.
The film aims to highlight the increasing rates at which teens are targeted by predators who pose as teens online to coerce girls into sharing nude photos or videos of themselves. Once the predators receive even the very first nude images, the extortion — or sextortion — begins.
The predators, who create catfish profiles, connect to teens by relating to their problems, zeroing in on experiences they say they supposedly share, like fights with parents. Once they’ve established a connection, they ask for photos. Then they threaten the teen that they will share their photos with their parents and post them on Facebook and tag their friends if they don’t follow their instructions: send more photos, video chat, strip.
The film calls sextortion “the fastest growing crime that no one knows about.”
In the documentary, filmmakers Stephen Peek and Maria Demeshkina Peek followed the stories of a teenage girl in Virginia, and the teen daughter of a government contractor living in Japan, as they received threatening messages from Harris.
During a panel discussion after the documentary, experts said it is important that teens learn to be as skeptical of strangers they meet on social media as they would be of those they meet on the street.
When giving children access to the internet, Suroviak said, “you kind of combine the adolescent sense of invulnerability and the agility to move through the internet with a lack of experience and knowledge of what’s happening. It can create the situation that we have, where all of these predators are able to access our children in ways they never could before.”
Parents should be aware, the experts said, that just because their child knows how to use a phone and knows not to talk to a stranger that approaches them outdoors, doesn’t mean they know how to avoid “stranger danger” online.
Peek likened giving a child a phone, video game console or tablet with internet access to hanging over car keys: to drive, they need lessons and a license. Yet for their devices, there is often no training.
“We’re literally putting them on the information superhighway and we’re not telling them anything, and that’s why this is happening,” he said.
Though the data tracking rates of sextortion crimes here in Connecticut are still being collected, Suroviak said “what we do know is that a lot of human trafficking and particularly sex trafficking has moved online.”
In the early days of collecting child sex trafficking data in the state, Suroviak — who has worked in the sex trafficking sphere in Connecticut for decades — said data showed that children were mostly being targeted in “congregate care settings, like foster homes.”
But that has changed.
“Now it’s happening right under people’s noses,” she said.
And, said Suroviak, it’s difficult to put a finger on which social media sites, video gaming platforms or websites pose the biggest risk, making it difficult for parents to place protections or restrictions on kids’ devices.
Suroviak said that when sex trafficking investigators in Connecticut tried to track the riskiest sites, it was nearly impossible. She likened the task to fighting the mythological monster Hydra, which sprouts more heads every time one is cut off.
She said that the best way for parents to help is by talking to their children, making them aware of the safety risks, the signs of being groomed and the safe space they have to talk to their parents — or any trusted adults — about how to move forward if they are victimized.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Gifford, who spoke on the panel after the film screening, said that “it’s not about the platform your kids are on, it’s about the message to kids being consistent.”
“They need to know that you’re a safe space for them if things start to go sideways,” Gifford said. Parents should tell their kids directly that if they’re victimized, even if they share or create sexual content, they will still be loved, cared for and supported.
Samantha McCord from the Connecticut State Police said that, in her opinion, the key is to remind children or “their intrinsic value.” She said that state police had received 11 reports of cyber extortion in the last month.
Many children are falling victim to these crimes no matter how many parental protections are placed on their devices, said Sharmese Walcott, Hartford State’s Attorney.
“These crimes are happening to children of parents who are hands-on, all-in, helicopter parents. It’s about the kid and not the device,” she said. “It’s all about being supportive and meeting kids where they’re at.”
Suroviak said that as she’s begun her work on the task force, which launched with her hiring in June, she’s tried to focus on understanding the impact of the pandemic and virtual learning and socialization.
“We’re just starting to understand the impacts of the pandemic,” she said.
But one thing was clear: as kids are spending more time online, so are predators. Suroviak said she hopes to create smooth, open lines of communication through all their partners and to do more community outreach, to raise people’s awareness about the risks of trafficking and what every Connecticut resident can do in their daily lives to help prevent it.
To watch “Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic” visit: https://sextortionfilm.com/.