The ‘sextortion’ scourge now affecting more men than women

More men than women are now reporting having intimate videos and photographs used against them online due to a sharp rise in “sextortion”, a form of blackmail in which crime gangs threaten to post explicit images unless a victim pays them.

E-Safety Commission figures show a 55 per cent rise in so-called image-based abuse in the last financial year, which includes relationship retribution – colloquially known as revenge porn – in which victims tend to be female, and sextortion, in which they tend to be male.

Men are falling victims to sexual extortion and blackmail perpetrated by overseas crime gangsCredit:Thinkstock

Male victims now make up almost 60 per cent of more than 4000 reports to the commission, compared with fewer than half the year before. Most victims – 40 per cent – are aged between 18 and 24, but more than a quarter are younger than 18.

More than half of image-based abuse reports involve sextortion, in which victims typically strike up a conversation with someone online – usually an overseas crime group, using a fake picture – through a dating app, or on social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok.

“[The perpetrator will] start a conversation, sometimes they can groom them and pretend they are in a relationship,” said e-Safety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant.

“They’ll flatter them, saying ‘send me a naked picture’, or ‘let’s do a sexy Skype’. The minute that happens, they’ll screen capture it, they’ll say, ‘we’ve got this image, we’ll send it to your friends and family’.

“Image-based abuse used to be much more heavily skewed towards women in relationships experiencing relationship retribution. Now that’s totally flipped on its head.”

Some victims have paid thousands of dollars in cryptocurrency to prevent the image being posted, but the blackmailer often then demands more money. The commission had 88 per cent of reported images removed.

Sextortion has been a growing problem around the world since the coronavirus pandemic, when people were physically separated and relied more heavily on so-called digital intimacy tools. In Australia, the number of reports to the commission have grown every month since December.

Police across the country, including the Australian Federal Police, have also raised the alarm, warning of a significant increase in offshore criminal syndicates targeting teenagers.

“If this happens to someone under the age of 18,” the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation said, “it is online child sexual abuse.”

Cyberbullying also grew significantly over the course of the pandemic, increasing by 65 per cent in the last financial year, the E-Safety Commission’s annual report showed. Most reports involved girls between 12 and 16, with an average age of 14.

Inman Grant urged sextortion victims not to pay or negotiate but instead to screenshot evidence such as usernames and bank account details, report the demands to its site – and block the extortionist.

However, prevention was “worth a pound of cure … it’s probably best not to ever send intimate images or videos to someone you have never met before.”

Relationship retribution remains a significant problem, with complaints also growing. More than 1500 reports of image abuse were made by women, involving everything from upskirting to intimate pictures posted without consent.

One woman, whose former boyfriend filmed her without her knowledge then threatened to post the video online, said the experience left her “paralysed with fear. I couldn’t move or speak”.

“My mind went straight to what would happen if someone saw such a personal video of me in such a compromising position. What is someone going to think of me, when they see that – what does it do to my integrity and reputation? I felt so powerless. It filled me with dread and shame.”

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