Sextortion boom coincides with online shift of pandemic as experts sound alarm

VANCOUVER —
The mass online shift sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a boom in sextortion scams, new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

As authorities aim to educate teens and parents about online sex crimes, experts are calling for more regulation, education and law enforcement.

Sexual blackmail, or sextortion, occurs when someone threatens to post private, often sexually explicit, material online if the victim fails to comply with their demands, usually in exchange for money.

The crime gained national attention nearly a decade ago when 15-year-old Amanda Todd, of Port Coquitlam, BC, died by suicide after posting a video of herself using index cards to describe being attacked by an anonymous cyberbully was tormented. It has been viewed more than 14 million times.

The trial of her alleged molester, Dutch woman Aydin Coban, began in June in the BC Supreme Court.

He pleaded not guilty to charges of racketeering, molestation, communicating with a youth to commit a sex offense, and possession and distribution of child pornography. He has not been charged in connection with Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the case were concluded earlier this week and the jury is now deliberating.

Signy Arnason, deputy executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said the problem has grown exponentially since Todd took her life in October 2012.

“It’s out of control,” she said in an interview.

Police across the country have warned the public about sextortion scams targeting teens.

“Sadly, police around the world have tragically witnessed how some of these incidents ended with victims taking their own lives,” said RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit Cpl. Mark Sobieraj said in a press release last week. “We urge parents and guardians to speak to children about the potential dangers and emphasize that they can reach out to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released on Tuesday shows that police-reported extortion cases in Canada have increased nearly 300 percent over the past decade, but crime has increased significantly during the pandemic.

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Incidents of non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or child victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, a nine percent increase from the previous year and a 52 percent increase from the previous five-year average.

“These worrying increases are being facilitated by social media platforms and other e-service providers,” Canadian Center for Child Protection executive director Lianna McDonald said in a press release. “It should be a wake-up call.”

Cybertip.ca, a national tipster hotline for reporting child sexual abuse online, said it had “received an unprecedented volume of reports from adolescents, and sometimes their concerned parents, that they had been the victim of aggressive sextortion tactics,” which amounts to about 300 online extortion cases per month.

Wayne MacKay, law professor emeritus at Dalhousie University, said the increase may be partly explained by awareness and better surveillance of cybercrime, but the research found also suggests that online child sexual abuse often goes unreported.

A review of the 322 sextortion cases Cybertip.ca received in July found that when the sex was known, 92 percent of them involved boys or young men.

“The review also revealed an emerging tactic where nude pictures of children are sent to the victim by the person behind the fake account. The perpetrator will then threaten to report the victim to the police, claiming that they are in possession of child sexual abuse material. Demands for money follow immediately,” the child protection center said in a press release this week.

David Fraser, an internet and privacy attorney at Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said a key reason some youth may not come forward is that they believe they could be charged with child pornography of their own image. He said this is a common misconception, sometimes even among law enforcement officials.

“We have to be very careful with the messages we send to young people, just to make sure there are safe places to go and get support before things escalate,” Fraser said.

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He cited a 2001 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that established a “personal use” exception to the child pornography regulations. It states that young people have the right to create intimate images of themselves as long as they do not depict illegal sexual activity, are used only for private use, and are made with the consent of the people in the image.

Fraser wants more police resources and education around the issue.

“I have seen a general lack of skills and competence on the part of the police to take existing laws and translate them into the online context,” he said.

“Blackmail is blackmail, whether you blackmail someone by threatening to disclose nude photos you blackmailed them to provide, or blackmail someone through other forms of more conventional blackmail.”

Molly Reynolds, an attorney at Torys LLP in Toronto, said her civil cases involving sexual extortion have increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It’s a crisis that’s at least 10 years old and we’re just beginning to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There are still many people who really don’t get police attention for reporting this criminal behavior.”

She said civil courts tend to be a better option for adult victims who know their abuser.

“You’re more likely to see a law enforcement response when it comes to child pornography offenses and not just non-consensual dissemination or voyeurism offenses,” she said.

“(Children) are in some ways better served by the criminal process, while adults, I think, need to approach the civil process more frequently.”

Darren Laur, chief training officer at White Hatter, a cybersecurity and digital literacy company, said the law has not kept pace with technological advances.

He said so-called deep fakes, which use an existing image or video to create fake but credible video footage, will create new challenges as blackmailers no longer need to force a person to take explicit actions.

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“The reality is that people will take advantage of technology and sometimes weaponize it. That’s the problem with deepfakes. I’m aware that deepfakes are being used as a weapon, particularly when it comes to tech-enhanced sexual abuse,” said Laur, a retired Victoria Police Sergeant.

Reynolds agreed, but said she doesn’t think the law will ever be able “to keep up with technology and the harm it can cause.”

“I think it plays a really big role for the courts to interpret what we already have and allow it to evolve as the technological risks evolve. We need to be able to make it easier for people to take these cases to court, whether criminal or civil, and to push the boundaries,” she said.

McDonald has started with the Canadian Center for Child Protection to call for more regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found the greatest harm to children occurs.

“This is an ongoing problem that is getting worse and so it really raises the question of what these companies are doing to keep children safe. It’s incredible that social media platforms are allowing fully grown strangers to directly reach out and target our children with no consequences,” she said in a press release on Thursday.

Laur said he has been calling for the creation of an online regulator like Australia’s eSafety Commissioner for years.

“They basically have the blueprint of how to do that,” he said. “We need something similar here in our country.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement the federal government is “currently developing an approach to combating harmful online content that includes the potential creation of a regulatory agency.”

As part of that process, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said he was “currently conducting roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and young people.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 6, 2022.