Sextortion: Protect yourself, don’t become a victim

In today’s digital world, most people are aware that they need to take steps to protect their identity. However, there are other scams lurking online that require similar vigilance.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigation is warning service members – and others – about online ‘sextortion’ scams, where perpetrators create fake profiles to lure unsuspecting victims into compromising video chats.

Here’s what you need to know and how you can protect yourself:

What is Sextortion?

Sextortion is a cybercrime involving the threat to distribute private, sexually explicit material unless a payment is made to the perpetrators. Unsuspecting victims can be approached in casual conversation via social media or dating applications and seduced into engaging in online sexual activities or exchanging illicit photographs through text messages.

These activities are recorded without the victim’s knowledge or consent, and the victim is subsequently threatened with public exposure and embarrassment if a specified sum of money is not paid to the perpetrator; usually through wire transfer or pornographic website subscriptions.

Examples of sextortion

A service member receives a Facebook friend request from a young, attractive female. She may list mutual friends on her page.

The service member and female begin chatting online. The conversation quickly becomes sexual in nature and the female requests it continues via webcam, usually Skype. Once a video connection is established, the female may appear in various stages of undress and performing explicit activities; she then requests the service member to reciprocate.

Unbeknownst to the service member, the sexual act is recorded; video files or still images of video are then sent to the service member and the female threatens to circulate the images unless the service member sends money via money transfer. In some cases, the female will demand the service member input their financial information to pornography subscription websites.

In another example, a service member is contacted by a female through dating sites. They exchange phone numbers and begin chatting via text messages.

The conversation quickly becomes sexual in nature and the female requests illicit pictures from the service member. Once the images are sent, the service member receives a text or phone call from someone posing as the father of the female or a law enforcement officer claiming the female is a minor. The service member is then threatened with exposure to their command or criminal charges unless a payment is made.

Sextortion is increasing worldwide

Although victims of sextortion may feel isolated, they are not alone. Sextortion is underreported due to feelings of shame, humiliation, fear, and not knowing where to turn for help. Service member victims may also fear potential consequences for their role in the incidents. Sextortion perpetrators rely on these fears to continue targeting victims and demand more money, even if an initial payment has already been made.

Criminals often target hundreds of individuals around the world simultaneously to increase their chances of finding a victim. They may be part of a sophisticated organized network operating out of business-like call centers. Service members are attractive targets to this type of crime because they are comprised of mostly young men far from home with an extensive active online presence.

Sextortionists also know service members have steady income and do not want to jeopardize their military careers by releasing embarrassing information.

Protect yourself from sextortion

• Adjust your privacy settings on social media to limit publicly available information.

• Exercise caution when accepting friend requests or communicating with unknown individuals online and avoid discussing U.S. military affiliations.

• Avoid engaging in sexually explicit activities/sharing compromising photos and videos online and via text.

• Update your anti-virus software and avoid downloading apps, files, or email attachments from unverified sources.

• Turn off your electronics and disable your webcam when not in use.

• Trust your instincts – sextortionists are highly sophisticated and able to trick their victims into a false sense of security; if you have any suspicions about the person you are communicating with, cease contact with them.

To report a sextortion crime, contact your local AFOSI office or text “AFOSI” plus your tip to CRIMES (274637). You can also visit www.OSI.AF.mil or call the AFOSI hotline at 877-246-1453. Web, text and smartphone reporting is anonymous.

(Editor’s note: Information in this article was compiled from an AFOSI brochure on how to protect yourself from the crime of sextortion.)