Sextortion boom coincides with pandemic’s online shift as experts sound alarm

Written by Javed Iqbal

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

Published on Saturday 6 August 2022 at 11:26 a.m. EDT

Last updated Saturday, August 6, 2022 4:49 PM EDT

VANCOUVER – The mass shift online caused by the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a boom in so-called “sextortion scams,” new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

As authorities aim to educate youth and parents about online sex crimes, experts are calling for more regulation, education and enforcement.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, occurs when someone threatens to distribute private, often sexually explicit, material online if the victim does not comply with their demands, usually for money.

The crime gained national attention nearly a decade ago when 15-year-old Amanda Todd of Port Coquitlam, BC, died by suicide after posting a video in which she used flash cards to describe being tormented by an anonymous cyberbully. It has been viewed more than 14 million times.

The trial of her harasser, Dutch national Aydin Coban, began in BC Supreme Court in June.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, harassment, communicating with a young person to commit a sexual offense and possession and distribution of child pornography. He was not charged in Todd’s death.

A jury unanimously convicted him on all five charges he faced Saturday after a day of deliberations.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director at the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said the problem has grown exponentially since Todd took his own life in October 2012.

“It’s out of control,” she said in an interview.

Police across the country have issued warnings to the public about sextortion scams targeting young people.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have tragically seen some of these incidents end in victims taking their own lives,” said Nova Scotia RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit Cpl. Mark Sobieraj said in a press release last week. “We encourage parents and guardians to talk to children about the potential dangers and stress that they can come to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday show that police-reported extortion cases in Canada rose by nearly 300 percent in the past decade, but the crime increased significantly during the pandemic.

Incidents of unauthorized distribution of intimate images involving adults or child victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, representing a nine percent jump from the previous year and a 52 percent increase compared to the previous five-year average.

“These increases are being facilitated by social media platforms and other electronic service providers,” Canadian Center for Child Protection executive director Lianna McDonald said in a press release. “That should be a wake-up call.”

Cybertip.ca, a national online child sexual abuse reporting tipline, said it has received “an unprecedented number of reports from youth and sometimes their concerned parents of being victims of aggressive sextortion tactics,” amounting to about 300 online extortion cases per month.

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said the increase can be partly explained by awareness and better policing of cybercrime, but noted research also suggests online child sexual abuse often goes unreported.

A review of the 322 sextortion cases Cybertip.ca received in July showed that when gender was known, 92 percent of them involved boys or young men.

“The audit also showed a new tactic where the victim is sent nude photos of children from the person behind the fake account. The perpetrator will then threaten to report the victim to the police, claiming they are in possession of child sexual abuse material. Claims for money will follow immediately,” the child welfare center said in a press release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy lawyer at Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said a main reason some young people may not come forward is that they believe they could be accused of child pornography by their own image . He said this is a widespread misconception, sometimes even among law enforcement.

“We have to be very careful about the messages we send to young people, just to make sure there are safe places they can go and get support before things escalate,” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Supreme Court of Canada decision that established a “personal use” exception to child pornography provisions. It said young people have the right to create intimate images of themselves as long as they do not depict illegal sexual activity, are kept for private use only and were created with the consent of the people in the image.

Fraser would like to see more police resources and training around the problem.

“I’ve generally seen across the board a lack of skill and competence on the part of the police to take existing laws and translate them into the online context,” he said.

“Blackmail is blackmail, whether you’re blackmailing someone by threatening to reveal nude photos that you’ve blackmailed them into providing, or whether you’re blackmailing someone through other forms of more conventional blackmail.”

Molly Reynolds, a lawyer at Torys LLP in Toronto, said her civil sexual harassment caseload has increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It’s at least a 10-year crisis and we’re just starting to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There’s still a lot of people who really don’t get the attention of the police when they reporting this criminal behavior.”

She said civil court tends to be a better option for adult victims who know their perpetrator.

“You’re more likely to see a law enforcement response if it can fall under the child pornography offenses and not just non-consensual or voyeuristic crimes,” she said.

“(Children) are in some ways better served by the criminal procedure, whereas adults, I think, more often have to turn to the civil procedures.”

Darren Laur, Chief Training Officer at White Hatter, an internet security and digital literacy training company, said the law has not kept pace with technological advances.

He said so-called deep forgeries, where an existing image or video is used to create fake but believable video footage, will create new challenges because blackmailers no longer need to force a person to perform explicit actions.

“The reality is that people will use technology for good and sometimes weaponized. That’s the problem with deep fakes. I think deep fakes are going to be weaponized, especially when it comes to technologically facilitated sexual abuse,” said Laur, who is a retired Victoria Police Sgt.

Reynolds agreed, but said she doesn’t think the law will ever be able to “keep up with the technology and the harm it can create.”

“There is a really big role, I think, for the courts to interpret what we already have and let it develop, just as the technological risks develop. We need to be able to make it easier for people to get these cases to court, whether criminal or civil, and to test the boundaries,” she said.

McDonald, with the Canadian Center for Child Protection, has begun calling for more regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found most of the harm to children occurs.

“This is an ongoing problem that is getting worse, so it really begs the question, what are these companies doing to protect children? It’s unbelievable that social media platforms allow total adult strangers to directly reach out and target our children without any consequence ,” she said in a press release Thursday.

Laur said he has been calling for the creation of an online regulatory agency, like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner, for years.

“They basically have the plan on how to do this,” he said. “We need something similar here in our country.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement that the federal government is “currently developing an approach to dealing with harmful content online, which includes the potential creation of a regulatory body.”

As part of that process, it said Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez is “currently holding roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and youth.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 6, 2022.

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Javed Iqbal

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