‘Sextortion’ is a new challenge of our times

TECHNOLOGY and cybersecurity companies also need to be increasingly involved in the development of functions that protect children and adults from online threats and malicious users. Picture: Reuters

TECHNOLOGY and cybersecurity companies also need to be increasingly involved in the development of functions that protect children and adults from online threats and malicious users. Picture: Reuters

Published Apr 14, 2024


By Tswelopele Makoe

THIS past Wednesday, two brothers from Nigeria pleaded guilty to sexual extortion, popularly known as “sextortion”, in a case that has gained international attention.

The case follows the sextortion and resultant suicide of a 17-year-old boy, Jordan DeMay, who shot himself at his home after being tricked into sending explicit photos of himself to someone posing as a girl online.

He was subsequently blackmailed into paying $500 (about R9 400) to stop the dispersal of his personal photos by his “sextortionists”.

Nearly two years later, Samuel Ogoshi and Samson Ogoshi, 20 and 22 respectively, are facing federal charges in the death of Jordan DeMay, and have officially pleaded guilty to sexually extorting children, teenage boys and young men in Michigan and across the United States.

Closer to home, we have had a trail of sextortion cases in recent years. The case of 19-year-old Giyani native Matima Ndlovu, who extorted R28 000 from his victim nearly a year ago, highlighted a sextortion syndicate across Giyani in Limpopo, where several young people were being groomed to become sextortion predators.

Just over two years ago, Rivalani Manganyi was arrested in Diepkloof, Soweto, after extorting over R15 000 a Cape Town in one month alone.

Another case of sextortion by a University of Limpopo student, Mbuyelo Result Nkuna, was shocking as he had been extorting money from his victim consistently for approximately two years.

By definition, “sextortion” or “sexploitation”, occurs when an online predator tricks someone into giving them private sexual material such as images or videos, and then demands money, more images or makes other demands.

The predator then threatens to share the images with friends, families, religious communities and even workplaces should the victim not comply. According to the National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, approximately 80% of predators demand money from their victims.

Young children, mostly girls, are led into sex slavery by sex trafficking rings posing as sextortion syndicates. In fact, this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that although any child can be a victim of sextortion, males between the ages of 14 and 17 are being especially targeted.

It is also important to distinguish between sexual extortion (or sextortion) which entails non-physical coercion, and sexual exploitation (or sexploitation), which entails physical coercion into sexual acts and abusive sexual behaviours.

Sextortion is a serious crime punishable by 15 years’ imprisonment. A predator’s coercion of a child in sextortion is considered the production of child pornography, which aggravates the criminal charges.

This critical issue was highlighted on Wednesday evening during SAfm’s “Night Talk”, where Cybersecurity Adviser Andy Mashaile stated that sexual exploitation cases have been on an upward spike, particularly since the Covid-19 global pandemic.

In the past four years particularly, children under 15 years of age have been increasingly targeted, more so as these are the age groups that are newly inducted into digital spaces and the internet.

Online predators are more-than-often adults, who, in a sexually motivated way, approach children and teenagers online to exploit their innocence and inexperience.

Being in the internet age allows anybody, regardless of time and location, to communicate instantaneously. In technological studies, it referred to as “the compression of time and space”.

Fake accounts are rife in digital spaces, meaning numerous people are identifying themselves using false information. Predators will often use various online channels, including social media, online gaming platforms, dating applications and video chat applications to target their victims.

Our contemporary world demands that we learn how to make use of technology critically and creatively. This is especially challenging for younger generations, who are inclined to use digital resources in their everyday lives but must remain protected from malicious content and online predators.

The aftermath of sextortion is particularly debilitating to the victims. Not only is there social stigmatisation onfthose who have had their private content dispersed, but there are psychological ramifications as well. Emotional distress, embarrassment, heightened anxiety, isolation, withdrawal and feelings of perpetual fear are common traits experienced by victims of sextortion.

Some victims may turn to self-harm, suicide or substance abuse. This not only deeply affects the personal lives of victims, but also their social, spiritual and professional lives.

This is a terrifying and dehumanising violation, especially for young children and teens that are not yet independent, and often unaware that there is help available.

Grappling with sextortion in our society is a critical undertaking. Although some people are aware of this crime, many more are not. In fact, several cases go unreported due to the secretive and criminal nature of these activities.

The lead investigator at Royal Investigations, John Alexander, says that sextortion is often “not registered with the police due to little-to-no confidence in the police ‒ and when they are, it would usually be closed due to the suspect going undetected”.

Education is key to grappling with sextortion. It is a contemporary issue and must be candidly, and repeatedly, addressed in sexual education curricula.

Sextortion should also be grappled with in higher education in order to meaningfully mitigate this in our societies. It is not enough to identify where offenders are located; we need to implement measures that will prohibit the exploitation of people in digital spaces.

We need to find ways to effectively remove deviants and malicious individuals from systems where they do not belong. We need to empower, equip and engage with children on the dangers. Many children use tablets and various gadgets from as early as the age of 3. Pop-up advertisements are rife across all internet platforms, and they often promote child pornography, sexual violence and other forms of abuse.

Parents and guardians need to be increasingly vigilant about the digital content that their children engage with and implement the functions that are there to protect children from unauthorised content.

Technology and cybersecurity companies also need to be increasingly involved in the development of functions that protect children and adults from online threats and malicious users.

The reality is that not many faceless crimes are successfully investigated, identified and apprehended.

Technology is vast and tightly interlinked with our modern society, and as such, we must ensure that our society grows increasingly vigilant of online predators.

Navigating online spaces can be challenging, even for adults. It is vital to highlight these threats, particularly because crimes such as sextortion, revenge porn and catfishing (assuming false online identities) are precursors to human trafficking and sex trafficking.

Although millions of people, of all ages, are victims of sex trafficking globally, only 50-100 000 cases are solved each year. A report by The University of Johannesburg shows that trafficking occurs at a slightly higher rate for girls than boys, with 55.5% of all trafficked people in South Africa being female.

Addressing sextortion is also financially taxing. According to Simon Campbell-Young from DigiGuard, a company that specialises in digital clean-ups and take-downs, said it could cost between R500 to R1 000 to remove fake or illicitly compromising content.

“We can remove it from the platforms but not the general internet. We also have a solution, called Digisure, which assists the client legally to get a cease-and-desist order and to prosecute a perpetrator via the police/courts. Our website is www.Digimune.com,” said Young-Campbell.

There are a plethora of financial, digital and legal advisers available to redress cases of sextortion, and they continue to grow in number.

Technology is unavoidable, and as such, digital predators are unavoidable. We as a society need to ensure that laws are erected in addressing and minimising cybercrimes such as sextortion.

We have a responsibility, not only to the current generation but also future generations, to ensure that cyber criminals are identified and eradicated from digital spaces.

We have a responsibility to educate our society on these dangers. We need to be well-informed in order to mitigate the dangers presented in digital spaces.

Reporting these cases, publicising malicious profiles and keeping these crimes at the forefront of public discourse is pertinent to addressing them effectively. Sextortion is a borderless crime and can happen to absolutely anybody.

* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender & Social Justice Activist, published weekly in the Sunday Independent & IOL, Global South Media Network and Eswatini Times. She is also an Andrew W. Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.