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Sextortion, what is it?

Who doesn’t love the convenience of technology? From research to shopping and even social media, the power of the web is exciting. At the same time, there are some dangers to be aware of. One of the more troubling trends on the web is a form of trafficking known as sextortion.

What is sextortion? It means using technology to contact unsuspecting users with the aim of getting them to share revealing images of themselves. Predators use the threat of exposure as a way to make the victim do something they don’t want to do.

It happens more often—and at a younger age—than you might think. A 2017 study surveyed thousands of victims and found that one in four were 12 or younger when threatened. Most were girls threatened before the age of 16. And if you assume that this kind of activity would be too obvious to go unnoticed by families, consider that a third of victims had never told anyone about their abuse due to shame or embarrassment.

To guard against sextortion, it’s worth asking how it works. It often begins in a seemingly innocent way. It could be something as normal as a social media invite. Younger users who are friendly or just inexperienced might assume the request is safe, or even romantic. By targeting the young, the sender stands a better chance of getting someone to share a photo intended to be kept private. And once the exploiter has the image, he’ll often use it to continue pressuring for more of the same.

Although this type of exploitation doesn't involve moving people across borders, it’s actually considered a form of human trafficking. The good news is that sextortion is something we can all help prevent! Start by raising awareness of the issue with your own family and friends, especially teens and children who go online. Tell those you care about that no matter what kind of relationship they have with someone else, no one has the right to force them to do or share anything. And remind them they have your full trust and support as an ally who will help to keep them safe from predators.

If you or someone you know has become the victim of sextortion and the situation is ongoing, there are steps you can take to break free. In the case of helping someone else, emphasize that you’re ready to listen to whatever they’re feeling or going through. And if you’re the victim, be sure to tell someone you trust who can listen and sympathize.

In either case, plan to report the situation to someone who can address the abuse. It’s possible that tech companies can help victims to remove compromising images, and in some cases even stop the threats. Another key step you can take to help curb sextortion is to be sure you never forward photos yourself. Stopping the circulation of such images is key to protecting victims.

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