Protecting yourself from the latest internet sex crime

April 21, 2020

Researchers from Michigan State University released a study on "sextortion" - a lesser-known internet crime that poses a threat to adults and minors - that sheds light on the importance of protecting the public from online criminals.

"Sextortion is the use of intimate images or videos that have been captured to then extort compliance from a victim," said Roberta Liggett O'Malley, MSU criminal justice doctoral student and co-author of the study. "What makes it different from any other crime is the threat to release. A perpetrator could say, 'I have these images of you and will publish them unless you...' to get more images or even in exchange for money."

In many cases of sextortion, perpetrators don't actually possess the images or videos they're using as leverage. Instead, offenders manipulate victim behavior by tapping into the fear of not knowing whether the threat is real.

The research -- published in Journal of Interpersonal Violence -- suggests the current focus on dissemination of images online may overshadow the issue of threat-based harassment online, like sextortion. While most U.S. states have laws against revenge porn, the study makes a case for increasing awareness and changing legislation to include other forms of internet-based sexual abuse crimes.

"Much of the fear comes from the belief that hackers can do anything involving technology, from the ability to see someone's web browser history to hacking into a webcam or Nest device," said Karen Holt, assistant professor of criminal justice and co-author. "That's why sextortion is so effective -- it creates a huge amount of uncertainty and fear that victims end up complying versus saying, 'I think you're bluffing, and if I ignore you, then I'm fine.'"

Liggett O'Malley and Holt said men are less likely to report these crimes to police out of embarrassment or shame, but also don't experience the longevity of harassment experienced by minors.

"The victims are overwhelmingly minors and females, but if the objective is to get money, they're almost always targeting men," Liggett O'Malley said. "These two groups of people experience a similar crime in very different ways."

Analysis of 152 cyber sextortion offenders uncovered four distinct types: minor-focused, targeting victims under 18 years of age; cybercrime, targeting victims using computer-based tactics like hacking; intimately violent, targeting former or current romantic partners; and transnational, targeting strangers strictly for financial reasons.

Holt explained that the four themes reflect different motivations for what offenders want from their victims. A survey of 1,631 cyber sextortion victims found 46% were minors, making crimes against minors a focus for law enforcement and in research literature.

"The disproportionate focus on minor victims has led to new laws that protect minors from adult sexual solicitation online, but there are few legal protections for adult male and female victims," Liggett O'Malley said.

Researchers are starting to see sextortion being used by a lot of other perpetrators. Within a domestic violence context, partners may share images consensually, only to have those images later used as leverage in the relationship. In other instances, transnational organizations employ scams in which individuals pretend to be a man or women on the internet, engaging in webcam sessions with victims and immediately threatening to release a recording unless money is provided.

Awareness and reporting of sextortion crimes, while acting responsibly online, are key in protecting adults and children.

"As digital citizens, we have to start advocating for more accountability on behalf of platforms to take these images down, or to report harassment," Holt said. "A lot of offline crimes have an online component, and oftentimes law enforcement and our behavior don't catch up. We need to think about our own personal safety, both offline and online."

Researchers like Liggett O'Malley and Holt also advocate for federal laws to address the legal loopholes of sextortion.

"We can't only be focused on revenge porn," Liggett O'Malley said. "We need to stop and think about all the ways in which images are used against people and to think about the way we construct these laws to ensure there are pathways for prosecution and arrest."
-end-
Note for reporters: please include link in online coverage: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0886260520909186?journalCode=jiva

Michigan State University

Related Fear Articles from Brightsurf:

How does the brain process fear?
CSHL Professor Bo Li's team explores the brain circuits that underlie fear.

The overlap between fear and anxiety brain circuits
Fear and anxiety reflect overlapping brain circuits, according to research recently published in JNeurosci.

Fear of missing out impacts people of all ages
The social anxiety that other people are having fun without you, also known as FoMO, is more associated with loneliness, low self-esteem and low self-compassion than with age, according to a recent study led by Washington State University psychology professor Chris Barry.

How fear transforms into anxiety
University of New Mexico researchers identify for the first time the brain-wide neural correlates of the transition from fear to anxiety.

How associative fear memory is formed in the brain
Using a mouse model, a pair of UC Riverside researchers demonstrated the formation of fear memory involves the strengthening of neural pathways between two brain areas: the hippocampus, which responds to a particular context and encodes it, and the amygdala, which triggers defensive behavior, including fear responses.

What makes fear decrease
In uncanny situations, the mere presence of an unknown person can have a calming effect.

With these neurons, extinguishing fear is its own reward
The same neurons responsible for encoding reward also form new memories to suppress fearful ones, according to new research by scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.

Having to defend one's sexuality increases fear of childbirth
In order to help people with fear of childbirth, there must be trust between the patient and the healthcare staff.

Fear of hospitalization keeps men from talking about suicide
Fear of psychiatric hospitalization is one of the primary reasons that older men -- an age and gender group at high risk for suicide -- don't talk about suicide with their physicians.

Brain activity predicts fear of pain
Researchers applied a machine learning technique that could potentially translate patterns of activity in fear-processing brain regions into scores on questionnaires used to assess a patient's fear of pain.

Read More: Fear News and Fear Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.