The Australian Federal Police (AFP) have reported a spike in financial sextortion reports over the school holidays, with the criminals targeting young Australian males.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion involves the coercion of victims into sending sexualized images and, or videos to an offender pretending to be another young person, and then using them to ask for silencing payment.
This might even include doctored or photoshopped images (such as adding their head to another person’s naked body). The scammers may pretend to be someone of similar age from Norway or Canada, and to be friends with their friends.
The criminals may be blackmailing teenagers with threats to share their images or videos with their partner, boss, friends, or relatives. The offenders will stop if they send money, gift cards, or online gambling credits.
The scam uses social engineering to lure a victim. It’s about creating a fake profile that looks genuine, building trust, using flattery, and then manipulating tactics. The fake profile will typically use stolen photos and include plagiarised captions and profile data.
The criminals may use Facebook or Snapchat and then move to video call software like Skype. They might be using video recording software on the victim. They may claim to be live but are actually using stolen footage from the web that they have memorized. The chat can quickly escalate.
Increase in Sextortion Activity
There was a nearly 60 percent rise in reports in December 2022. Overseas offenders primarily target teenage boys (and the police are seeing more than 90 percent of victims who report are young males).
The AFP has a dedicated team for stopping child exploitation and abuse called the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE). They are urging teenagers to talk openly with their friends, parents, carers, and educators.
“We are seeing offshore criminal syndicates targeting a victim’s entire friend list,” said acting Assistant Commissioner Hilda Sirec.
“This type of financial sextortion involves victims being coerced into sending sexualized images or videos of themselves by online offenders, usually with the offender pretending to be another young person. The offender then threatens to on-share the content [with] others unless the victim pays,” Sirec said.
“When this happens to someone under the age of 18, it is online child sexual exploitation and I want to reassure victims of this crime that they will not be in trouble with the police for coming forward and reporting,” acting Assistant Commissioner Sirec said.
The AFP and AUSTRAC have been working with the financial sector and have shut down over 500 Australian banks, financial services, and digital currency accounts linked to offshore organized criminals sexually extorting Australian teenagers. This project is called Operation Huntsman.
“We are experiencing a global trend of offshore crime syndicates targeting teenagers, predominantly young men, and boys, being [coerced] into sending sexually explicit content and then blackmailing them,” Commander Sirec said.
Why do they blackmail?
A scammer may demand and receive money from US$500 to US$15,000. This might occur within 20 minutes to around 2 hours, and over several days until they typically give up and move on to another person.
AUSTRAC National Manager, Law Enforcement & Industry, Jon Brewer, said that criminal syndicates were exploiting young Australians for their own financial gain.
“Criminal syndicates are driven by the financial gains they can achieve through exploiting vulnerable members of our community,” he said.
“As Australia’s financial intelligence agency, AUSTRAC is uniquely placed to identify suspicious financial transactions that underpin crimes, including sextortion. The tradecraft and agility of our analysts enable AUSTRAC to follow the money as it crosses borders and financial and digital ecosystems,” he continued.
“The financial intelligence which we uncover and share with law enforcement partners in Australia and overseas trigger tangible flow on actions, including the identification of bank and financial service accounts associated with sexual extortion,” Jon said.
Where does sextortion happen?
One of the larger crime syndicates operates in the Philippines, but these may also be located in Nigeria, South Africa, and anywhere in the world. The chatters are typically aged from 16 to 30 and earn good money for their efforts.
In 2014, a Philippines syndicate targeted people in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, the Philippines, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They were trained to target people with steady jobs. The money was sent to Western Unions and managed by a second team who collected the money using fake I.D.s.
How can Parents Stop Sextortion?
Commander Sirec said the AFP was expecting more young people to report cases of sextortion to police as a result of the talking to the public and increasing awareness.
“What we are asking of parents and carers is to be approachable and supportive if their child is a victim and to make sure they get the help they need. We know the offenders will try and make your child feel isolated from their trusted networks,” Sirec said.
“Your child is a victim of online child sexual exploitation and they need your support. These situations can be very distressing and can have long-term impacts, and need [to] be addressed appropriately. We would also encourage any child facing a demand for money to not pay as this does not make the crime stop.” Sirec said.
“When reporting to the ACCCE our specialist investigators prioritize the safety of children to make sure they are getting the help and support they need,” Sirec said.
If you or someone you know is a victim of this crime and under the age of 18, we encourage you to make a report to the police or online with the ACCCE.
Sharing School Images Online Safely
Acting Assistant Commissioner Hilda Sirec says there are simple ways parents can better protect their children online.
“If you are sharing images of your children online, review your privacy settings on social media to limit the personal information being shared with others,” Sirec said.
“Without strong privacy settings, images shared online of their child’s first day at school or other everyday images may end up being seen by unintended audiences.”
“We also suggest setting accounts to ‘private’ or ‘friends only’, review your friends or followers and only share images of children with people you know and trust.”
Parents and carers should also consider using images that do not include anything that gives away identifying factors, such as their children’s names, locations, or school logos.
Tips for a Victim of Sextortion
- Stop the conversation or chat
- Collect evidence (take screenshots of the text and profile)
- Block the account and report it to the platform (the most critical preventative action)
- Seek help from the police or the ACCCE. If you are overseas, contact your local law enforcement.
- It’s okay to ask for support or talk to someone about your experience
Tips for Parents and Guardians
- Encourage an open dialogue so children feel safe talking about their online experiences
- Check your children’s social media accounts are set to ‘friends only’ or private
- Turn off location settings
- Do not share personal details about where they go to school or where they live
- Blur out any personal information in photos, including school logos, school names and signs, street names, name tags, and other identifying factors.
- Remind them not to send photos to people they don’t know
- Purchase an Inchargebox and lock up your kid’s devices overnight while they are being charged as a way to create healthy screen time boundaries
The rise in reports has seen the creation of the online blackmail and sexual extortion response kit to aid victims, along with their parents and guardians and more information on sextortion can be found here.
Remember: “If your child is or has been a victim, reassure them that it’s not their fault and that there is help available through the ACCCE and our partners.”