Sextortion: A threat for everybody, teenagers in particular

Blackmail is a crime as old as time, and modern technology has helped it — like so many other things — explode. Criminals relieve their victims of money in a

Blackmail is a crime as old as time, and modern technology has helped it — like so many other things — explode. Criminals relieve their victims of money in a great variety of ways, but hacking communications such as text messages and webcams brings ruthless efficiency to a highly personal type of crime called sextortion.

Sextortion, or sexual blackmail, consists of a threat to reveal intimate information about a victim unless the victim pays money to the extorter. In this connected, digital age, the information might include snippets of sexual text messages (sexts), intimate photos, even videos. The crooks typically demand money, but sometimes they’re after more compromising material — send more or I’ll expose you.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about sextortion is that the vast majority of victims are teenagers — not a demographic known for having a lot of money to throw around. But teens do make excellent victims for sextortion.

The teenage years are a time for figuring out how to find and cultivate new kinds of relationships — and generally without a reliable road map. Teens are also beginning to forge their own paths and question authority, but they have yet to develop an adult’s understanding of consequences.

The result can be a cybercriminal’s dream: Lots of information that should be kept extremely secure but isn’t, belonging to people who are emotionally vulnerable and easily shamed. Perhaps that is why an estimated 70% of the victims are teenagers. Most victims are female, as well, although being a male adult is no protection.

The perpetrators may hack accounts or try worming their way into a potential victim’s favor and get her to send incriminating material directly. The next step is threatening to make the info public.

Victims obey. They are often ashamed and afraid of public condemnation, and asking for help means revealing secrets they are desperate to keep. And teens are very vulnerable. Sextortion can lead to serious psychological trauma or even suicide attempts.

As with so many issues affecting teenagers, communication is key, and communication may present a challenge. However, it is also a technological problem, and we have some tips that can help keep you and your teenager safe.

Protect yourself and your kids from sextortion

1. Understand that anything you share online can be made public, and explain that point to your teen. It could be published by hackers or the trusted recipient — or someone who hacked the trusted recipient’s computer or phone — once something is online it is sharable. Chatting with strangers amps up the risk, but generally, consider anything you send online public and readable by everyone from your best friend to your teachers to your grandparents.

2. Practice good cybersecurity. Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication to help protect your social networks, messaging programs, and e-mail. Always run up-to-date security software. Note that Kaspersky Internet Security protects your webcam from unauthorized access.

3. Stay alert and learn about new threats. Crimes such as sextortion are everybody’s problem. Share information about threats — forewarned is forearmed.

4. Talk to your kids about Internet scams and cybercriminals. Yes, it can be hard to speak about sex and sextortion with your kids, but they need to know. Find out how their school handles cybersecurity and cybersafety education — perhaps they have some helpful materials about discussing this issue at home.