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The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines sextortion as:
…a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.
The perpetrator may also threaten to harm your friends or relatives by using information they have obtained from your electronic devices unless you comply with their demands.
Using information posted on social media, the perpetrators of extortion gain the confidence of their victims by friending them on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Kik, or one of the other rapidly growing social media sites where young people gather.
Today’s teens and pre-teens have never lived in a world in which they were not virtually connected. In her book, Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein wrote that many teens learn about sex through online pornography that is freely available in an era of “abstinence only” education. Their lives are lived online, they are not noted for using strong passwords or two-step verification, making them easy targets for online sextortionists who threaten them with exposure if they do not comply with the sextortionist’s demands.
According to a recent Brookings Institution report, one perpetrator, after connecting with a victim through social media, would then routinely send an email to the victim, which came complete with its own malicious software that:
…provided access to all files, photos, and videos on the infected computers. It allowed him to see everything typed on their keyboards. And it allowed him to, at will, turn on any web camera and microphone attached to the computer, a capability he used to watch, listen, and record his victims without their knowledge. He kept detailed files on many of his victims, at times gathering information for more than a month, and filling his files with information he could later use to manipulate his victims. Mijangos used a keylogger – a tool that allowed him to see everything typed on a computer – to track whether the victims told friends and family or law enforcement about his scheme. And if they did, he would then threaten them further, notifying them that he knew they had told someone. The malware Mijangos wrote was sophisticated, and he told federal authorities that he designed it specifically to be undetectable to antivirus programs.
Luis Mijangos operated out of Santa Ana, California, and included 44 minors in the 230 people he victimized. Arrested by the FBI in 2010, he received six years in exchange for a guilty plea to “one count of computer hacking and one count of wiretapping.”
Luis Mijangos is only one of 13 cases that were prosecuted with more than 100 victims. Two of those cases had “hundreds if not thousands” of victims. So far, every perpetrator to face prosecution has been male, including fathers and stepfathers of victims. In the cases studied by Brookings, the victims tend to be minors (71 percent of the cases) of either sex, although the overwhelming majority are female. The adult victims have all been women.
The exact dimensions of this form of sexual assault are unknown. Brookings found that no one is keeping an accurate total figure of victims or assailants although the authors of the report:
…contacted the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, the Cyber Civil Rights Legal Project, the Family Online Safety Institute, Thorn, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), none of which could provide data on the prevalence of sextortion cases nationally. The NCMEC has published a limited set of data culled from its CyberTipline, which it reports in part as follows:
78 percent of the incidents involved female children and 12 percent involved male children (In 10 percent of incidents, child gender could not be determined);
The average age at the time of the incident was approximately 15 years old, despite a wider age-range for female children (eight-17 years old) compared to male children (11-17 years old); and
In 22 percent of the reports, the reporter mentioned being suspicious of, or knowing that, multiple children were targeted by the same offender.
The media tends to focus on single cases of sextortion, like Luis Mijangos or Lucas Michael Chansler who, the FBI believes, targeted nearly 350 young girls, including Ashley Reynolds, who was 14 when she was victimized by him.
What Reynolds went through during her ordeal is hard to imagine, but the worst of it may have been her feeling of isolation, her lack of anyone to share her problem with, including, and especially, her parents:
But I just wish there were, like, outlets—available outlets—for a 14-year-old’s brain if they are too afraid to go to their parents, because they don’t want to go to their parents and tell them what’s happening to them. So if they had a different way to go about it, then I think that would make it a lot more comfortable and it would make it, it would kind of start get the ball rolling for them and to put an end to what they are going through.
Ashley Reynolds’ tormentor accepted a plea deal on 14 counts of child pornography, which earned him 105 years in federal prison. The FBI is still trying to locate his other victims.
Which brings us to another problem with sextortion. In spite of the FBI’s naming it as a crime, there is no specific law that prohibits it. Instead, authorities have relied on child pornography charges if minors are involved and charges of cyberstalking, computer hacking, or extortion when adults are the victims, resulting in a wide disparity of sentences, depending on whether state or federal laws are applied. Luis Mijangos got six years for hacking and wiretapping while Chansler got 105 years even though their crimes were remarkably similar. Adam Savager was a college student when he sextorted at least 15 women, one of them as active as he was in Republican politics. He got two-and-a-half years on a single count of cyberstalking.
If Congress would ever stop using its investigative powers for purely political purposes, they could, and should, investigate this issue and perhaps even propose legislation that could address it on a federal level. Some states and some jurisdictions have vigorously prosecuted these cases, but a national policy is required to ensure the resources necessary to seek out and prosecute these perpetrators in all jurisdictions. Since the crime is committed on the internet, and not necessarily locally, it only makes sense to treat all cases under federal law. Also, offenders whose victims are adult should be punished with more than a token prison sentence. Look for a discussion of the Brookings report, Closing the sextortion sentencing gap: A legislative proposal, next week.