Sextortion continues to be a “prevalent” crime in Calgary, according to the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT).
Sextortion is a form of online blackmail where criminals deceive young people through various digital platforms like Snapchat and Instagram to obtain explicit images.
Victims are then threatened and extorted for money or more material.
The organized and serious crime task force said more than 100 youth in southern Alberta have been victimized by sextortion scams since March.
“Our unit has handled well over 100 cases, but the sad reality is that we know the numbers are much higher,” Det. Steve Brighton of ALERT’s internet child exploitation (ICE) unit said.
“There are kids out there who have fallen victim, but are also too scared or embarrassed to seek help and resources.”
ALERT said an arrest was made earlier this year overseas.
“ICE’s international partnership proved valuable with the arrest of an Australian-based offender who extorted $1,000 from a Calgary youth. ICE’s investigation traced the recipient of the proceeds of crime and an arrest was made in September 2022,” ALERT said in a news release on Thursday.
ALERT said the majority of offences take place over social media apps and two-thirds of cases target boys between nine and 17 years old.
Police said the suspect will present themselves as a girl from a nearby community and/or school, or as a social media acquaintance, trying to befriend their intended victim.
After creating the appearance of a promising online relationship, the suspect will usually send a sexually explicit image and demand one in return.
The photo or video sent in return will be used as a kind of blackmail, with the suspect often saying they will release the image to friends, family or the internet in general, unless money is sent.
Payments are usually done in the form or banking information, credit card numbers, e-transfers or gift cards.
“ICE units worldwide are collaborating to investigate, but we really need help in raising further awareness and making sure these conversations are taking place in homes and schools,” Det. Dean Jacobs said.
“It’s heartbreaking to see first-hand the devastating impact these types of offences are having on kids, and our colleagues in the U.S. have linked sextortion to more than a dozen suicides.”
In Canada, one of the most well-known case of sextortion was the blackmail and threats which led to the death of B.C. teen Amanda Todd a decade ago.
Just weeks before her death, she created a YouTube video where she silently held up cue cards documenting the torment she suffered from age 12 to 15 and its effect on her life.
The video went viral and became a symbol in the fight against online harassment.
In October of this year, a B.C. Supreme Court judge sentenced the Dutch man convicted of harassing and extorting the girl to 13 years in prison — more than prosecutors had asked for.
Last month, an Oregon District judge ruled a 41-year-old man would remain behind bars until his trial in relation to an Edmonton 13-year-old girl’s exploitation, abduction and sexual harassment.
ALERT said arrests prove challenging in these crimes as many of the suspects are believed to be operating overseas, in an organized fashion akin to phone scammers.
ICE offers the following tips to anyone experiencing sextortion:
- Immediately stop all communication
- Do not comply with the threat
- Report it online to the social media service
- Reach out for help to a trusted adult
- Keep the correspondence by downloading account information from the social media platform or take screenshots
- Contact local police, as digital evidence can often be deleted
ALERT also advises caution when talking to new people online, especially with unsolicited friend or follow requests from people you don’t know, sudden sexualized questions or conversation, getting a direct messaging asking to move the conversation to a different app, or claims a webcam/microphone isn’t working for calls and/or chats.
Adults can also play an important role in prevention, as studies show one in three sextortion victims don’t tell anyone due to embarrassment or shame.
Police advise adults to talk about online safety, privacy, establishing boundaries, what a healthy relationship looks like, and consent.
Adults can also help kids take advantage of privacy options and teach kids to not give into pressure if they feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Communicating it’s not a child’s fault if someone makes them uncomfortable can also help.
ALERT has created an online resource regarding sextortion, as has the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.