What is sextortion?

What is sextortion? And how do you know if you’re being extorted online? The Mix chats to author Becca Caddy on their experiences with sextortion and what we all need to do to help combat it.

A young female looks upset next to a phone. The phone features a social app.

Sextortion is when someone threatens to share your private and intimate images or videos unless you give them money, more images, or other favours. Individuals are often targeted online via social media, games, messaging apps or dating sites.

In many cases, the perpetrator adopts a false identity and builds trust in their victims before exploiting them. However, with the rise of AI, sextortion has taken a new form. Author Becca Caddy shares her experiences of sextortion and how AI is changing how victims are being targeted.

In the UK alone, cases of sextortion have doubled over the past two years. If you, or someone you know, feel like you might be a victim of sextortion, there is support out there for you. Scroll down to the bottom of the article to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your personal experiences of sextortion?

I received an email with the subject line “Photoshoot – Becca”. I opened it on my phone and saw a photo of me that was taken a few years ago. I’m a journalist and an author and the photo is one that’s often used by online publications alongside work I’ve written.

I recognised my own smiling face. But as I scrolled down I saw that it looked like I was wearing either a vest top or I was naked – it was hard to tell as my hair was obscuring my body. This initially struck me as really bizarre as I’m very familiar with that photo and knew I was wearing a black top at the time it was taken.

I scrolled further down in the email and saw another photo I was familiar with. It was taken during a day out in early December 2023 in a coffee shop after I’d been to buy a Christmas tree with my mum. I was sipping hot chocolate out of a pink mug and wearing a blue fleece. I shared this photo on Instagram Stories and Facebook.

But as I scrolled further down, I realised my face was attached to a body that wasn’t mine. It was a naked body with big breasts and a tiny, distorted waist.

There was a follow-up email that had been sent a minute later from the same email address. It contained threats that these images would be sent to my friends and family on Facebook, my Linkedin contacts and men in my industry and city. The email said I had 12 hours to send .05 BTC to the Bitcoin address enclosed.

In many ways, it read like a typical scam email – the kind I’ve seen before in my Gmail spam folder or read about online. But this one was malicious – with comments about the harmful impact these photos would have on my life, family, relationships and mental health if I did not comply and the sender shared these images.

How did you feel when you realised you were being extorted?

At first, I wasn’t sure how seriously to take the threat as it contained details that weren’t relevant to me – it mentioned sending them to my employer but I’m self-employed. But the email combined with the images made it feel more shocking and serious. That maybe this wasn’t an empty threat but a real one.

I did have flashes of fear they might be shared with friends or family members before I’d had a chance to tell them about it. So I wanted to warn people close to me in case. I spoke to close friends and family. Then, I decided to share the email and the images on my Instagram Stories and Twitter/X account.

I initially did this as a way to inform everyone close to me all at once what had happened and I also wanted to take some of the power away from the threat – the photos couldn’t be held over me if I shared them myself (censored versions, obviously).

I also wanted to warn people about the scam, just in case it prompts conversations that might be helpful for people who are more vulnerable. Or if it happens to someone else and the images look more “real” and they find it upsetting and are concerned what the repercussions might be, even when they themselves know it’s fake.

The more I learn about the ways other people – especially younger people – have been impacted by AI-generated explicit images like these, the more glad I am that my initial reaction was to share my experience.

What impact did this experience have on your health and wellbeing?

I found it scary, shocking and bizarre. It’s made me feel self-conscious and sharing the details online has made me feel a little exposed. But I’m glad I did it to raise awareness.

What resources or support systems were most helpful during this time?

This site is very good: https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/

Are there any positive changes or growth you’ve experienced as a result of this ordeal?

I feel glad I shared what happened as people have told me they now know if it happens to them or someone they know, they’ll know they’re not alone.

What message do you want to share with others about the reality of sextortion?

The goal is to make you feel scared and shameful. So as much as you can, talk to someone. Dispel the fear and shame. Don’t do anything rashly. Most experts recommend not paying. Even if you give the person extorting you what they want, I’ve heard there are instances of photos being released anyway. And get in touch with https://revengepornhelpline.org.uk/

What signs can you look out for to prevent being a victim of sextortion?

  • Someone you don’t know has recently connected with you online. They become interested in your personal life and ask for images or videos of you.
  • Emails from addresses that look like they could be spam, or from people you don’t know.
  • Someone who frequently changes or uses multiple accounts.
  • Avoid sharing personal information or intimate images online, even with people you trust.
  • If something feels off or makes you uncomfortable, trust your instincts and disengage.

List of useful resources

  • The Cyber Helpline provides free, expert help and advice to people targeted by online crime and harm in the UK and USA.
  • IWF can help identify and remove global online child sexual abuse imagery.
  • Revenge Porn Helpline is a UK service supporting adults (aged 18+) who experience intimate image abuse.

Next Steps

Tags:

crime| sex| sextortion

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Updated on 14-Jun-2024

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