Shreya Bakhshi 16 May 2023

Parents are being asked to speak to teens about the dangers of sharing sexual material online after the rise of a new type of scam authorities have dubbed “sextortion”.

Sextortion involves scammers reaching out and forming relationships with people on social media platforms like Snapchat, Discord or Wizz and later moving the conversation onto other platforms that display friends and family profile details.

Scammers use specific profiles so they appear to be around the same age as the victim and of the opposite sex. They often begin by reaching out for a friend request and then move the conversation to a platform such as Instagram where they can view the victim’s contacts. They then send the victim an intimate image and encourage them to take part in video chats or sharing their own intimate pictures. Screenshots are taken of intimate images and videos are recorded.

As soon as an intimate image or video has been shared the victim is told they have been recorded and that the recording or pictures will be shared online or with their friends and family unless a ransom is paid immediately. The scammers apply pressure to the victim and tell them the image will be deleted as soon as they pay.

Westpac’s Financial Crime team have seen losses as high as $3500 in sextortion cases. The team estimates they see two to three cases a month, though this is just the tip of the iceberg as most young people won’t report extortion to their bank.

In their Quarterly Report for 2022, CERT NZ reported that scams and fraud accounted for almost $17 million in direct financial losses. Of this, $590,000 was from sextortion scams, though this is thought to under-represent the scale of the problem.

Victoria University Criminologist Dr Samantha Keene said there were likely more sextortion scams occurring than what is officially reported to authorities. The discrepancy in reporting likely stemmed from the shame and embarrassment victims felt when their intimate images were shared online without their consent, she said.

“Young people may be more vulnerable to the harms of these types of scams because of the impact that the threats of sharing the sexual content on the networks, that are important to them socially, can have on their mental wellbeing.”


What are some of the tell-tale signs?

According to New Zealand Police and Netsafe, most sextortion scammers have certain giveaway signs that are subtle, but not too difficult to spot.

Some tell-tale signs of a sextortion scam include but are not restricted to:

  • Meeting the victim on one app and quickly encouraging them to move the conversation onto another app.
  • Inconsistencies with the profile or language – such as English being a second language which may not match their profile picture or story.
  • Immediate introduction of sexual conversations – the victim will be encouraged to engage in sexual activities, by either a real person who is part of a larger blackmailing operation or a pre-recorded video.
  • The scammer being hesitant to reveal their true identity, giving excuses like their webcam/camera isn’t working for video calls.


What to do if you or a loved one has fallen victim to sextortion

The first step is to cease all contact with the scammer. Save or screenshot any online chats for evidence, then block the scammer’s profile.  If they are still sending threatening messages, victims should not pay them and or share any more images or videos. It might be helpful to tell friends and family not to engage with any strangers who message them.

The next step is to contact the correct authorities – by reporting to a local police station or online 105 Police Non-Emergency | New Zealand Police or  Netsafe.

If you have a copy of the private images or video you are being threatened with, you can use a free service to get them removed

  • Images or videos of people under 18 years of age: Take It Down
  • Images or videos of people aged 18 and over: Stop NCII

It might be a good idea to deactivate social media profiles for a while or set social media account privacy settings to their highest level:

  • Instructions for deactivating Facebook hereand changing your privacy settings here 
  • Instructions for deactivating Instagram hereand changing your privacy settings  here 
  • Instructions for deleting Snapchat hereand changing your privacy settings  here 

Additional Support:

  • Sextortion can be deeply upsetting and victims may need emotional or psychological support. For confidential support, victims can talk to:
    Youthline on free text 234 or call 0800 376 633 or 
     Lifeline on free text HELP (4357) or call 0800 LIFELINE (0800 54 33 54)     

If you think you are in immediate danger, call 111 for emergency services.


Preventive steps victims and caregivers can take

Dr Keene said caregivers should help their children take some long-term steps in order to avoid being scammed in the future.

Parents and caregivers need to assess whether children are ready to have these difficult conversations and approach the subject accordingly. 

For the education to be successful, parents need to ensure the environment they create for such conversations is non-judgemental, Keene said.

“Having conversations on a regular basis about what people are engaging in online, and about how to stay safe, is really important.

“Those who are impacted by sextortion scams need to be believed, and it is important that they know that what happened to them was not their fault,” Dr Keene said.

Netsafe’s Nik Hancock said judgement-free support was critical.

“If your children have fallen victim to it, then immediately support, without questions of why they did what they did, to ensure that they do not pay, and that they and you are prepared for how people may react if the images or video is released.”