Social media companies like Meta and Snap Inc. have been updating their security features throughout 2023 to combat sextortion facilitated through their apps as the number of cases in Canada is reported to be on the rise.
According to the latest data from Cybertip, reports of sextortion in Canada have reached new highs, with 4,952 instances reported between June 2022 and the end of September 2023.
Cybertip, a reporting tipline for online abuse operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection in Winnipeg, saw an average increase of 35 per cent from June to September this year compared with the same period last year. (Data from Cybertip goes back only to June 2022.) At the same time, police departments have been reporting even higher increases — including, for example, in Montreal and Calgary.
Sextortion is the practice of acquiring something, usually money, by threatening to expose a victim’s nude or explicit photos or videos online.
“We’ve had a number of conversations with these companies over the years … [but] they are not taking the necessary actions to ensure the safety of the individuals on their platform,” said Cybertip director Stephen Sauer, who’s been with the tipline since its inception 20 years ago.
While the efforts of social media companies have helped remove leaked photos and videos from the internet and provided some support for victims, experts say they do little to actually prevent the abuse from happening in the first place.
Cybertip also collects data indicating on which platform victims met their extortionists. Eighty per cent of the reports mention either Instagram or Snapchat, with complaints split in roughly equal numbers.
Victim speaks out about emotional turmoil
Of the cases Cybertip has received in the last 15 months, the victims are between the ages of 14 and 24, and nearly 90 per cent are male. Catherine Tabak, an analyst with Cybertip, said there’s a reason for that.
“They are looking to gain quick access to money — boys would be sort of their go-to because they’re more impulsive,” she said, referring to offenders.
This means most of the victims in the database are much like “Kyle,” who has asked CBC News not to reveal his real name and city for fear that his extortionist will come after him again or his loved ones will find out what happened to him.
Kyle, now 21, was 19 when he met his extortionist on a messaging app called Kik in 2020. It occurred during a period when the isolation of repeated COVID-19 lockdowns inspired him to download a messaging app to meet new friends. Instead, he met an extortionist posing as a young male love interest.
“They can create a fake email, make a fake age … enter any group chat that they like,” Kyle said. “So imagine how many people underage are using these apps and are being exposed to this.”
He had been chatting and sharing explicit photos and videos with the scammer for months, until he shared one video that revealed his face. The conversation immediately turned.
Kyle said he initially sent the man $500 to keep his video private, but the extortionist was able to track down his Instagram and Facebook accounts to leverage more threats.
“He sent me a screenshot with over hundreds of friends and family, that he was threatening me that if I don’t send him more that he will expose me,” he said. “My family members were all asleep and I was crying in my room, and at that point I felt very hopeless.”
Aside from the risk of humiliation, Kyle was further motivated to stop his photos and videos from leaking because he is not openly gay and feared his religious parents with whom he still lives would find out his secret.
“I was in this lifestyle that was unacceptable to many people in my life,” he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, these people shouldn’t be in your life,’ but they are, and I love them.”
After days of scrambling to turn over more than $2,000 in total, Kyle found the courage to push back. He used the details of the money transfer he had made to figure out the scammer’s full name and tie his location to the Middle East. That scared off the extortionist, who blocked Kyle.
He reported the incident to police, but the scammer was never caught.
Need to be proactive, not reactive, experts say
With digital encounters transcending borders and legal jurisdictions, successful police intervention is complicated and rare. It’s a reason why experts say reactive measures are insufficient and that more needs to be done to stop bad actors from getting ahold of these images in the first place.
Tabak and her team at Cybertip are often the first point of contact for victims in Canada. She said while strategies like Meta’s Take It Down tool will help victims whose photos have been shared, for others, help comes too late.
“We do have kids that will come in and say, … ‘I’m not concerned,’ but in the vast majority of cases, kids just completely spiral,” she said.
Across North America, CBC News found more than a dozen media reports of teens who died by suicide in incidents linked to sextortion in the past two years. Daniel Lints, a 17-year-old from Manitoba died last year just three hours after he was threatened by his scammer.
“We hear a lot about how parents need to be aware of their kids’ online activities,” said Derek Lints, Daniel’s father. “It is not the parents’ fault either. We had accounts on every platform our son did and kept an eye on activity.”
Meta and Snap have started to implement some proactive measures. Meta says it sends alerts to users when they are contacted by an unknown account that they deem suspicious, such as an adult who recently followed many minors or was blocked by someone under 18. Snap Inc., which owns Snapchat, said it is starting to issue similar warnings.
Both companies say they have made it harder for adults to discover teen accounts or interact with them if they don’t have mutual friends, while Kik’s parent company, MediaLab, said it’s consulting with various organizations to enhance its protective measures.
But Tabak said more needs to be done to verify the identity and age of users.
“You should never have a platform that allows children to communicate with adults in any capacity, especially in an unsupervised environment,” she said.
Tabak said she will often reach out to a platform to flag a sextortion account, and it will be pulled down, only for another account with a similar name to pop up a few days later.
“These platforms … make so much money and they have all this technology to be able to address other problems. Why is child safety not a priority on their list?”
‘Responsible AI’ as part of the solution
Shweta Singh, an assistant professor of information systems and management at the University of Warwick’s business school in England, is leading a team that’s working on a type of “responsible AI” to stop sextortion before it starts.
“It is actually possible to identify when the conversation, which is an erotic conversation, is actually going towards blackmailing,” she said. “The whole fine line is not to intrude [on] people’s privacy but to still actually raise an alert, raise a flag.”
Singh is working on a program that would do just that, but she said it’s not likely to be implemented by social media companies without government intervention.
“These companies are profit-making companies, right?” she said. “There has to be a duty of care on these platforms, which is uniformly implemented across [platforms].”
The federal government has several ministers working together on a regulatory framework to make the internet safer. Minister of Justice Arif Virani told CBC News in a statement that sextortion is on their radar.
“I will continue to work with my colleagues and the ministers of Canadian heritage and public safety to introduce legislation as soon as possible to combat the sexual exploitation of children and other online dangers — but we must take the time to do this properly. Too much is at stake,” Virani’s statement said.
What to do if you’re a victim of sextortion
Experts say the best defence against sextortion is to immediately cease communication. A study headed by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection last year analyzed comments posted in an online public forum on Reddit titled “r/sextortion.”
The study found that complying with a sextortionist’s demands led to more demands in 93 per cent of the cases. A poll of r/sextortion members showed that ignoring the scammer led to photos never being distributed 67 per cent of the time, while paying them led to their photos being deleted only 11 per cent of the time.
Kyle said as far as he knows, his photos have never been sent to his friends and loved ones, but he’s still anxious knowing that someone in the world has them.
Therapy is helping him deal with the emotional turmoil, he said, while connecting with peers he’s met on r/sextortion has helped him find a way forward.
“I kept creating these reflection posts every day, updating the victims of how I’m feeling, my mental health … the objectives I’ve done throughout the day,” he said, noting that he’s ready to move on.
Kyle said he hopes sharing his story encourages other victims to do the same.