‘Sextortion’, the online sexual extortion and coercion of children and adults, seems to be on the rise, but Cyprus police are not too concerned, saying that prevention is the best way to deal with this variant of cybercrime.
Although only 21 cases of ‘sextortion’ were reported to the helpline 1480 in the first quarter of the year, this form of Internet-based crime is far behind the biggest complaint of 122 cases of ‘electronic crime’, according to data from the CYberSafety public platform.
The project was set up in 2016 by the Pedagogical Institute of the Ministry of Education and Culture, is funded by the EU and supported by the police, the telecoms regulator OCECPR, the University of Cyprus, and telcos Cyta and MTN.
Police cybercrimes unit Superintendent Andreas Anastasiades told CyBC radio on Tuesday that users, and especially parents of younger users, must be vigilant, as “there are no filters, but although we cannot ignore them, users must be very careful to delete or block suspicious senders.”
“We have been cooperating with Europol to find ways to deal with the crime, as it has become a major issue in Spain. There, they turned to prevention and we are doing something similar here,” Anastasiades said.
He said that ‘sextortion’ usually involves predators who claim to have hacked a major database of email and say they have acquired the personal data of the victim, including alleged history of their visits to sex sites, sometimes going as far as to suggest they have compromising photos or videos of the victims as well.
“The best way is to ignore these spammers and if possible to report them, using as much evidence as possible. But most of these spammers and cybercriminals are based in Africa or other third world countries where we are unable to cooperate with local law enforcement,” Anastasiades said.
“They will send out thousands of emails, hoping to net a handful of victims. It costs them nothing.”
He added that extortion rates start from small amounts and rise to a range of €300 to 3,000.
Anastasiades said that of the 277 cases reported to the helpline, 267 were from adults, of whom 12 were parents reporting cybercrimes on behalf of underaged children.
The Cyprus police cybercrimes units has a complaints form in English;
The CYberSafety platform is only available in Greek.
Last year, Europol issued a statement recommending that the term ‘sextortion’ is no longer used as “it does not convey that the act in question involves the sexual abuse and exploitation of a child, with extremely serious consequences for the victim. Instead, the more accurate expression, ‘online sexual coercion and extortion of children’, should be used”.
Online sexual coercion and extortion affects adults and minors alike, and it is facilitated by technological expansion, growing internet coverage and the widespread availability of mobile devices.
Europol said that when minors are targeted as victims, the main motivations identified in the adults perpetrating the crimes include a sexual interest in children, where the objective is to procure sexual material (photos or videos depicting the child) or an offline sexual encounter; an economic interest, where the objective is to gain financially from the extortion, while a combination of both is also possible.
The trans-European police agency said that victims may be reluctant to come forward to law enforcement or seek help as they are embarrassed about the material the perpetrator has, or because they are unaware that they are victims of crime.
Other motivations may include malice or social gains such as attention, popularity and affirmation. In these cases, the perpetrator is usually another minor, who may be unaware of the illegal aspect of their behaviour. For many young people, sexting (sexual communication that includes sharing of self-generated sexually explicit material (SGSEM)) is a common form of flirting and experimenting.
Teens engaging in the creation of SGSEM can do it consensually, but also as a result of coercion.
“Education is therefore key for young people to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable online communication,” Europol said.
The agency also reported on the case of a 31-year old Romanian national who was sentenced in September 2017 in a court in Timisoara to four years in prison for blackmailing a British teenager and producing and distributing indecent pictures of a child.
The 17-year old teenager from Coalisland (Northern Ireland) took his own life after the suspect tricked him into sharing intimate photographs of himself by posing as a girl online back in June 2015.
This sentencing followed a joint investigation into the teenager’s death by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Romanian Police, with the active support of Europol and the UK’s National Crime Agency.
In response to this worrying phenomenon, the European law enforcement community joined forces last year to launch a campaign, #SayNO, supported by Europol, to give advice to those who have been, or are likely to be targeted, and to strengthen reporting and support mechanisms.
The campaign includes a short film, available in all EU languages, which helps people to recognise a potential online sexual coercion and extortion approach, provides online advice and highlights the importance of reporting the crime to the competent national authorities.
Protecting yourself online
1. Protect your online life: use the maximum privacy settings.
2. Be aware that people online may not be who they claim to be.
3. Keep control online: do not share explicit or intimate images with anyone.
If you believe you are a victim of this type of crime
1. Don’t share more, don’t pay anything.
2. Look for help. You are not alone.
3. Preserve evidence. Don’t delete anything.
4. Stop the communication. Block the person.