The Canadian Centre for Child Protection reports an alarming increase in cyber extortion of children and teenagers. Extortionists target teens, generally aged 10 to 17, initially contacting them through social media and moving the conversation to messaging.
In this post, Monique Ferraro, Counsel Cyber Practice with HSB, outlines the dangers cyber extortionists pose to teens and steps to mitigate threats.
How they trick your teen
Using grooming techniques to lower the victim’s defenses, the extortionist persuades the victim to send sexually suggestive or explicit images.
Once the extortionist receives the images, the conversation turns from seduction to threats that the perpetrator will tell the victim’s parents about her or his online activity.
Fearing punishment and embarrassment, the teenaged victim complies with the extortionist’s demands for payment, which range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.
The victim often further complicates the matter by stealing the money to satisfy the extortion demand, usually from a parent.
Information security investigators and researchers have termed this transaction, “sextortion.”
Sextortion is on the rise, and the aftermath can be serious
According to a recent report released by the U.S. Justice Department, “the threat of sextortion directed toward children is not just restricted to the immediate sexual and emotional abuse. Sextortion victims engage in cutting, have depression, drop out of school or grades decline, as well as engage in other forms of self-harm at an alarming rate”.
Canada has witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of sextortion through teen suicide.
Overseas operations are reportedly pulling in hundreds of thousands of dollars daily using this tactic.
Because the perpetrators are offshore, investigation by law enforcement, extradition and prosecution are difficult, expensive and compete with higher profile crimes that cause more financial and physical damage.
That is little comfort to the victims of the crimes and their parents, all of whom pay a steep emotional, reputational and financial cost.
What you can do right now to help prevent this new form of cyber extortion
While prevention of cyber extortion is preferable, the financial and emotional harm to your teen and to you can be mitigated. Here are two methods to reduce the potential for cyber extortion:
1) Use software to monitor your teen’s social media and email accounts
There are a number of online tools that you can employ, at relatively nominal cost, to make monitoring their computer and smartphone use less intrusive. Rather than reading their diary or manually reviewing their browsing history and online conversations, consider using monitoring software to see what your son or daughter has been up to online.
Software that monitors computer usage can be a good way to keep teens safe by addressing issues before they progress too far. Catching negative or risky online behavior early can lead to productive teaching opportunities.
For example, talking to your teen about what he or she thinks about a peer who posts suggestive images or messages can be a good starting point for a conversation about the hazards of sending such a message or image themselves.
Nobody likes to be spied on. Monitoring your teen’s online and smartphone activity is similar to how your employer regulates your Internet and phone use at work.
Start out by telling your teen that you’re going to be monitoring them and that monitoring is a condition of Internet and smartphone use.
Inform them that the monitoring is for their safety and that you are there to support them in learning how to safely and successfully negotiate the Internet and social media.
Monitoring software isn’t for everyone. Even when it’s employed, it is effective to educate your teen and to reinforce your message periodically. This leads us to the second method:
2) Tell your teen about cyber extortion and that they may encounter it
You may have already discussed the issue of refraining from sharing personal information and sexually suggestive or explicit images. But, this message isn’t a “one-and-done” talk. To prevent sextortion, it’s important that your teen knows that even if they fall victim to sending the images that you will help them to resolve the issue without making it worse for them.
While telling a parent about sending a sexual image is a tough thing to do, once the parent knows, the threat behind the extortion has no value.
Teens are naturally reluctant to tell their parents they did something involving sex. They are even more unwilling to tell them that the conduct has resulted in being extorted for money they probably don’t have.
Let your teen know they can come to you, and remind them of the message from time to time. As much as it may make you want to recoil, and as much as your teen says they already know the message, reinforcement doesn’t hurt.
Stay positive, but consider involving law enforcement.
If your teen does tell you that they sent an embarrassing picture and they are being extorted, try to focus on the positive—your son or daughter is making a brave and trusting step toward you.
Reward your teen with praise for telling the truth and help them report the offender to the social media outlet. Consult with a local lawyer to determine if you and your teen should report the incident to law enforcement.
Finally, keep your credit cards, cash, online payment accounts and digital currency, if you use it, secure. If your teen doesn’t have an easily available way to pay an extortionist, he or she may be more likely to tell you about the extortion demand.
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