Improved education around sextortion could help raise awareness and save lives

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Sextortion is a growing issue that affects more young men than women.
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Two Nigerian men have been charged over an alleged sextortion case that allegedly led to a teenage Australian boy taking his own life in 2023, just hours after he was asked for money and threatened.

The alleged offenders will be “dealt with locally” in Nigeria, where authorities have the power to prosecute for Australian-based offences.

The boy’s death is one of many fatal cases linked to what has been described as a “hidden pandemic” targetting children around the world. Parents of the alleged victim did not want their son or themselves identified.

Sexual extortion or ‘sextortion’ is a form of blackmail, when someone threatens to share sexual images or videos of unless their demands are met.

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At a New South Wales Police media conference this afternoon, Detective Superintendent Matthew Craft, State Crime Command’s Cybercrime Squad, said the teenage boy took his own life shortly after receiving threats that personal photos would be shared with his family and friends if he did not pay $500.

Messaging escalated to threats and intimidation

The investigation into the teenager’s death revealed that, in the hours before he died, the boy was in his bedroom at his family home, messaging who he believed was a young woman on social media. When she sent a photo of herself, the boy sent one of himself back. The subsequent messages suddenly became more sexualised, with the boy sent more explicit pictures of the woman before being urged to send nude pics of himself in return.

“And that was the gotcha moment,” said Detective Superintendent Craft.

The tone of the messages from the ‘girl’ changed instantly and radically to “high-pressure threats and demands”, Detective Superintendent Craft said.

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The teenager was told that if he didn’t pay $500 in online gift cards, his naked photos would be distributed to his family and school friends.

“The messages are horrific. They’re aggressive and put a lot of pressure on the boy to pay the money,” he said.

Hours later, the boy took his own life.

Threats to safety should not be suffered in silence

After conducting an initial investigation, police referred the matter to the NSW state crime command’s cybercrime squad, which led to the alleged perpetrators being traced to Nigeria. Help was then requested from the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

The two men charged were tracked down to a Nigerian slum that is home to more than 25 million people – a grim reality that highlights the extent of the global problem sextortion has become.

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The message Detective Superintendent Craft wants more young people to realise is that they don’t need to suffer in silence.

“We’ve seen a huge spike in sextortion cases, which are up nearly 400 per cent in the last 18 months,” he said.

“But the good news is people are reporting it and there are steps we can take to help you before it goes too far. We want young people to continue to report these cases and to never be embarrassed to talk to police.”

A growing global problem facing young people

In a study of over 5,500 adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States, five per cent reported they had been victims of sextortion. The harm associated with sextortion included repeated online contact, harassment, and having fake online profiles created.

Although girls are more likely to experience sexual assault and have images of themselves shared without their consent, the study showed boys are more likely to experience sextortion, with reported sextortion cases showing they represent 91 per cent of victims.

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The boys mistakenly believe they are engaging in a mutual exchange of sexual images, which then results in sexual extortion for financial gain.

The same study also showed boys are less likely than girls to disclose victimisation to a parent or authority figure.

The tragic case of the Australian teenage boy was strikingly similar to the deaths of other schoolboys around the world, including Canadians Robin Janjua and William Doiron, and American Jordan Demay, who were all allegedly hounded to suicide by sextortion plots managed by west African crime gangs.

16-year-old Mr Doiron was a rising hockey star who killed himself after the scammers convinced him to share explicit photographs and posted them on Instagram in October 2022.

“They convince you that your life is over if you don’t pay,” his mother told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Mr Janjua took his own life in February 2022, while Mr Demay died in March 2022.

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Seek support and share protection strategies

In an attempt to help create improved education around the issue, the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) joined forces with Kids Helpline, Meta and US youth prevention program, NoFiltr, in November 2023.

NoFiltr is a youth prevention program founded by Thorn, who play an important role in empowering young people to safely navigate sexual exploitation and risky encounters in their connected world.

The multi-stakeholder partnership included the release of new educational resources, targeting 13–17-year-olds online with safety messages to prevent and respond to sextortion. The package also included support and advice to parents and youth on sextortion, information on how to report sextortion and most importantly, where to seek help if targeted by offenders.

With recent data revealing the ACCCE receives more than reports of sextortion targeting children each month, the initiative aims to improve education around sextortion – education that could save lives, due to the serious emotional and health impacts sextortion can cause.

At the time of last year’s announcement, AFP Acting Commander ACCCE and Human Exploitation Frank Rayner said the resources were designed to educate and support young people, parents and guardians.

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“It’s important that children know that help is available and the AFP and its partners, including Kids Helpline, are here to protect and support victims of sextortion,” Acting Commander Rayner said.

“Sextortion can escalate in a matter of minutes, but remember it is not your fault and when you speak up, we will believe and support you. We want young people to be alert to the signs, report and seek help and guidance if they have been targeted by offenders.”

CEO of yourtown Tracy Adams said that Kids Helpline, a service delivered by yourtown, saw more than 280 reports of sextortion-based contacts made by young Australians, across the 12 months between July 2022 and June 2023.   

“This partnership highlights the need for a whole-of-community response to protecting our children through increased awareness and education aimed at preventing online sextortion before it happens,” Ms Adams said.

 “If your child is or has been a victim, it is important to stay calm and reassure them that it’s not their fault and that there is help available through Kids Helpline.”

More online safety advice and support is also available through the eSafety Commision website.

Police remind parents and carers to be aware

“Sextortion is a very real crime that we can take serious action against,” says Detective Superintendent Craft, adding that these offences particularly target “our most vulnerable males, 14 and up”.

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AFP Commander Helen Schneider said the arrests showed what could be achieved when law enforcement worked together to fight a global problem.

“The sextortion of children is a borderless crime, as these arrests show,” Commander Schneider said.

“The partnerships between law enforcement here in Australia and around the world are vital as we work together to protect children online.”

If you know someone that has become a victim of sextortion, here is what to do:

  • Urge them to not send any more graphic content or pay as this will lead to more demands;
  • Take screenshots of the chat for a police report;
  • Block the fake profile and notify the platform administrators;
  • Report the crime to the ACCCE; and
  • Seek mental health support if required. Kids Helpline offers free and confidential sessions with counsellors.

Support for young people and families:

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live