The Canadian Centre for Child Protection is calling the growing number of sextortion offences being reported an ‘epidemic.”
“To be completely frank, the situation is completely out of control. We can barely keep up with the sextortion reports that are coming in to us,” Canadian Centre for Child Protection Associate Executive Director Signy Arnason told Global News.
Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and the Philippines are ‘critical jurisdictions’ where alleged perpetrators are successfully victimizing people, often for financial gain, Arnason said.
Statistics Canada data reports a nearly 80-per cent increase in cyber-related extortion offences in 2020 from the year before. Arnason says that number has continued to rise.
She says with children and youth spending more time at home and on their digital devices during the pandemic, their vulnerability to being victimized increased as well. The child protection agency says there’s also a spike in boys being targeted.
“They’re tricked into believing they’re speaking with a teenage girl. They do something sexual. It’s recorded on the other side and then the threats ensue,” Arnason said.
She says the best advice is not to comply.
“In the immediate aftermath of having sent an image or knowing someone surreptitiously recorded, you should not comply, do not pay money, you need to disconnect. The person typically moves on,” Arnason added.
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Sextortion victim speaks out
University of Dalhousie international student Jean-Mari Hattingh says she was just 14 when intimate images of her were posted online without consent, while she lived in China.
“Checking over my shoulder every two minutes to see if they were there or being afraid to open my phone and answer an email or go on Instagram,” Hattingh told Global News of how she lived for years.
Hattingh says through the support of her loved ones and years of therapy, she’s been able to walk away from living in constant fear. The now 19-year-old says she’s studying to become a lawyer in Canada and wants to help other victims with similar experiences.
“It has made me a stronger person being able to now talk about it and being able to now reach out and tell people what happened,” Hattingh said.
She’s calling for more aggressive legislation across Canada, more prevention education in school curriculums and support resources for victims.
Sextortion prevention education in schools
Surrey, B.C., high school teacher Annie Ohana says about once a month, she has a student come up to her, saying they’re experiencing some kind of violence online.
“Kids have come to me with their phone, something is shared of them and now they’re panicking and don’t know what to do,” she said, adding, “Maybe they made a mistake, are being forced to share an image, images are spreading, both from the perspective of the reality of sometimes cyberbullying happening within a group.”
Ohana says she’s alarmed by the number of students who resort to self harm when they are victimized and unsure where to go.
“We need to understand this person is being harmed, so first of all no judgment, no victim shaming,” Ohana said.
Ohana says she incorporates preventative education into her social justice class curriculums.
“I start with that idea of respect and consent. Are we giving them the skillset to know what red flags look like and then if something is happening, how to report it early and often,” Ohana said.
B.C. passes new legislation to support sextortion victims
In response to tragedies like that of B.C. teenager Amanda Todd, who was 15 years old when she died by suicide after years of sextortion, B.C.’s government recently passed legislation it says is unique to Canada.
“The whole design of it is to be an online portal that’s 24/7, 24 hours a day on your phone. You can make an application to the Civil Resolution Tribunal for the perpetrator to actually be given an order to say ‘take it down’,” B.C.’s attorney general Niki Sharma told Global News.
Sharma says the province compared similar legislation which exists elsewhere in Canada and found a lot of the laws in place prioritize the Supreme Court as the avenue for victims to use.
“We’ve noticed the Supreme Court could be very intimidating. So we’re using our civil resolution tribunal, which is meant to be a very, very low barrier access to justice as the forum,” Sharma said.
Sharma highlights the wording of B.C.’s Intimate Images Protection Act is also broader than similar laws in other jurisdictions.
“We tried to make it as broad as possible with the types of images, including deepfakes or altered images,” she said.
Sharma said she’s alarmed over the numbers of young people and adults who are experiencing this type of sexualized violence and hopes the new law will send a clear message to everyone there are online tools for people to be held accountable.
“They’re your images. And if you didn’t consent to it, then it’s sexualized violence against you,” Sharma said.
Expert calls for more action to prevent sextortion, support victims
Some experts say the legislation doesn’t go far enough and many more supports are needed for victims and to prevent sexualized online violence.
“My concern is what we’ve seen in Nova Scotia with somewhat similar civil legislation here is that very few victims are actually going to use a legal process. In the vast majority of cases, victims are looking for non-legal, expedient processes to get emotional support, to get technological support to get those images down,” Saint Mary’s University criminology professor Alexa Dodge said.
Dodge also points to the need to remind victims it’s not their fault and that they’ve been harmed and for others to support them, not to shame them.
“ The more we send that message, I think the more we’re going to hear about these cases. We’re slowly changing the culture so victims feel they can come forward and that they’ll be supported rather than blamed,” Dodge said.
The Canadian Child Protection Centre (C3P)’s tipline, Cybertip.ca, 1-866-658-9022.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 — all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Learn more about how to help someone in crisis
on the Government of Canada website.