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How to investigate sextortion cases

The measures law enforcement must take to apprehend the perpetrators of online sexual blackmail

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Sex offenders thrive on secrets and manipulation, targeting unsuspecting victims by pretending to be something they aren’t in order to gain trust and secure the access they need to exploit the victims. Fulfilling a need or desire for the victim is a common method of gaining access to get what they want. Sextortion is a new challenge to an age-old problem: young people looking for attention or engaging in risky behavior being exploited by sexually motivated offenders.

What is sextortion?

Sextortion is a form of blackmail in which the suspect uses images or videos of the victim naked and/or engaged in sexual acts to force them into complying with the offender’s demands. [1] Typically, the offender befriends the victim online by pretending to be a fellow child and encouraging the victim to provide sexual photographs. This can occur on social media, gaming websites, or any other websites where kids tend to gather. Adults can be victimized as well, but children and teenagers are more often targeted for these crimes as they are more easily manipulated.

Once the compromising material is obtained, the offender threatens to release or share the images publicly unless the victim agrees to their demands. If the offender is savvy, they’ve already identified the family and friends of the victim by checking social media or other online databases. Often, the offender’s demands involve providing additional or more extreme images, but in some cases, the offender is financially motivated and demands money. The embarrassing nature of the situation puts significant pressure on the victim to comply in hopes that the problem will go away, but as you can imagine, once the victim complies, the offender doesn’t simply go on their merry way, but continues to demand more and more from the now fully hooked victim.

What can law enforcement do about sextortion?

The FBI reports that over over the past year, law enforcement agencies have received over 7,000 reports related to the online sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys. [2]

Officers can be more effective in investigating these crimes by keeping four key things in mind:

1. Take it seriously. Yes, the victim likely made some naïve decisions, but this crime can cause serious harm, and some victims have gone as far as dying by suicide rather than face the embarrassment and shame of being outed publicly. [3] Anything sexual is intimate and personal by nature, and most of us would not want that aspect of our lives shared publicly. Teenagers are especially vulnerable and common targets for these cases because they spend significant amounts of time online, and it’s natural at that age to take risks to engage in potential sexual activity. Combine that with the fact that their brains are still developing the ability to think long-term, and you have a perfect target for the perpetrator.

2. Pay attention to detail. Everything a person does online can be tracked, but only if investigators are meticulous in identifying the specifics, including account profile names with exact dates and times of the communications. The exact account name, URL, and date/time of communications are all going to be needed to help identify the suspect. Other useful information to gather is the phone number and email used to register the account. You also want to obtain the victim’s home internet protocol number, or “IP address,” as some sites only track which IP addresses communicated with each other.

3. Verify the victim is telling you everything. Remember that not only did the victim engage in embarrassing sexual behavior, but they were also duped. We obviously expect and want victims to be truthful, but it shouldn’t be surprising if the victim tries to minimize what took place or how long it went on to avoid admitting the full extent of what they were doing. They may also claim to have erased the account or have used a more innocent-sounding website rather than admit they were trolling a shady-sounding dating site. When dealing with children and teenagers, it may benefit you to interview them away from their parents, emphasizing that you’re there to help, not further embarrass them.

4. Know your capabilities and work with other agencies to help hold these offenders accountable. Depending on your agency, you may or may not have experience with computer crimes or a specific unit to follow up with. Another issue that arises regularly is how to handle offenders who live in other jurisdictions. It’s important to share your cases with state and federal agencies, not only to pursue your specific offender, but also so that law enforcement as a whole can keep up with the latest trends. The FBI is always available, and most states have an ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) unit available that can aid you in your investigation.

Ultimately, sextortion investigations are like any other investigation. If you’re diligent, pay attention to the details and seek help when needed, you have a much better chance at catching the suspect and holding them accountable in court.

NEXT: The impact of sextortion on a family, community and small-town police department

References
1. Edwards M, Hollely NM. (December 2023.) Online Sextortion: Characteristics of Offences from a Decade of Community Reporting. Journal of Economic Criminology, 100038.

2. FBI and partners issue national public safety alert on sextortion schemes. (January 19, 2023.) Justice.gov.

3. Whitehurst L. (October 23, 2023.) A teen’s death in a small Michigan town led the FBI and police to an online sexual extortion scheme. Associated Press.

Detective Corporal Jim Twardesky has been in law enforcement since 1999, currently serving as a detective for the City of Warren Police Department in Michigan. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in public administration, both from Wayne State University. Additionally, he teaches as an adjunct instructor for the Macomb Public Service Institute and regularly lectures on the subjects of child homicide, sex crimes and interviewing child molesters through his company Twardesky Consulting.

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