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Two students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, have become the latest victims of "sextortion," in which people send sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves to someone over the Internet and are then extorted for money by the recipient in exchange for not distributing them further, the university police said Monday in an alert distributed to Mason students and staff.
Just last month, the Justice Department declared in a new report that "sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children, with more than 60 percent of survey respondents indicating this type of online enticement of minors was increasing." The department performed a "National Child Exploitation Threat Assessment" by surveying investigators, prosecutors, analysts and victim service providers to determine the biggest threats in child sexual exploitation.
At Mason, police said that unidentified suspects had gained the trust of two students over the web in the past week, then enticed them to broadcast sex acts through their webcams. "The suspects then recorded the footage of the victims," Capt. Brian R. Cozby wrote in the email, "and threatened to circulate the videos on the Internet unless the victims paid $5,000."
Mason officials declined to release any other information about the case, including whether the university police were enlisting any other law enforcement help to find the suspects or what was being done for the victimized students. University spokesman Michael Sandler said the investigation was continuing.
In releasing a new "National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction" in April, the Justice Department made clear that sextortion has numerous tragic consequences. "The threat of sextortion directed toward children is not just restricted to the immediate sexual and emotional abuse imposed by the offender on their victims," the report found. "Sextortion victims engage in cutting, have depression, drop out of school or grades decline, as well as engage in other forms of self-harm at an alarming rate. In fact, a 2015 FBI analysis of 43 sextortion cases involving child victims revealed at least two victims committed suicide and at least ten more attempted suicide. Thus, at least 28 percent of these cases had at least one sextortion victim who committed or attempted suicide."
A 13-year-old girl named Amanda Todd is among the best-known victims of sextortion. In 2010, the Canadian girl showed her breasts during a video chat on the web. The recipient then messaged her on Facebook and demanded more, or else. When Todd refused to cooperate, the recipient shipped a photo to Todd's Facebook friends. In 2012, she posted a moving video about her predicament. Soon after, she committed suicide.
Investigators believe that sextortion is often committed by organized groups, rather than individuals, who not only recruit "agents" to extract explicit material from victims, but then pay monthly incentives "for the best-performing blackmailer," Cozby wrote. The Justice Department wrote that "it is becoming common for investigations to reveal that a single sextortion offender has been communicating with hundreds of potential victims. Forensic examinations of sextortion offenders' digital media commonly reveal thousands of organized folders containing videos and documentation of their contact with countless minors, often around the world."
In one 2015 FBI sextortion investigation, the Justice Department wrote, "offenders were specifically seeking out those children they considered easy targets because of their demonstrated willingness to post personal content online and engage in live-streaming video activity, whether the content was sexually explicit or not." President Barack Obama declared April "National Child Abuse Prevention Month."
In 2014, USA Today reported that the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force had recorded an increase in sextortion complaints from 5,300 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2013, a 32 percent rise in three years. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported that it received more than 800 sextortion-related tips between 2013 and 2015, that 78 percent of those victimized were female, and that the offender in three-fourths of the cases was seeking more explicit material, rather than money or sex.
Interpol is also tracking sextortion. Their website noted that "the blackmailer might assume the identity of an attractive man or woman then, after gaining the victim's trust, will record footage of the victim in the nude or performing a sexual act," and threaten to circulate the footage to friends or post it online unless money is paid. But in another version, "the engagement between the victim and the criminal is interrupted by a child appearing on the screen during the sex act. The victim then receives a demand, often appearing to come from a police agency, stating that an investigation will be launched unless the victim pays."
The Justice Department said it was collaborating with NCMEC to distribute materials to law enforcement and social services presenters across the country, to increase awareness of sextortion. Justice also said it would develop training for prosecutors on investigation and prosecution of sextortion cases.