Online ‘sextortion’ rising during pandemic: Men twice as likely to receive blackmail threats

MIAMI — More people are being sexually blackmailed online during the pandemic, a new study warns. Researchers add that men are the number one targets of these crimes — threatening to publish explicit images or videos of the victim, a cybercrime called sextortion.

Other groups, including young people, black women, and members of the LGBTQ community are also likely to receive messages from online extortionists. The team says there’s been a substantial rise in sexual violence involving digital technology since the beginning of the global pandemic. While cyber offenses like “revenge porn” receive a great deal of attention, however, sextortion is slipping under the radar, according to the team.

More often than not, the culprit is a current or former partner, online dating scammer, or a stranger hacking into a person’s photos or webcam.

Pandemic living is raising the risk of cybercrime

Dr. Asia Eaton​ from Florida International University says reports of sextortion to the FBI are rising as many people transition to a more digital life for both work and socializing during the pandemic. Eaton’s team carried out a survey involving more than 2,000 adults in the United States during their study.

They asked participants whether they had ever been a victim of sextortion, which researchers define as “the act of threatening to expose a nude or sexually explicit image in order to get a person to do something such as send more nude or sexually explicit images, pay someone money or perform sexual acts.”

Just under five percent of men reported experiencing sextortion since the beginning of the pandemic, compared to 2.3 percent of women. There are a number of possible explanations for why men are more likely to fall victim to sextortion than women during this time.

“Recent research has highlighted gender disparities in unpaid care work and household-related work since the start of the pandemic; it is possible that men had more time to spend online than women during the pandemic,” Dr. Eaton says in a media release.

Do men’s dating tendencies play a role?

A tendency to be less selective when it comes to dating could also explain why men are more likely to be a target, the team notes. This adds to previous research which found men were more likely to be victims of online romance scams in general. However, they are not the only ones being disproportionately extorted. Black and native Americans are also seven times more likely to receive such a threat in comparison to white women.

Likewise, rates amongst LGBTQ people are up to three times higher than among heterosexual individuals. Age was also a deciding factor, with 18 to 29-year-olds bearing the brunt of sextortion attempts. This was likely because of their greater desire for sexual experimentation and use of technology, the researchers say.

Victims of sexual violence from a partner before the pandemic were also more vulnerable to sextortion.

Study authors say more work is necessary to determine why the risk of sextortion varies with race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. Also, to understand how it affects people differently is important as women may suffer more than men even though they are less likely to be a target.

Eaton’s team recommends that clinical professionals add questions about how technology can facilitate sexual violence to their exams of patients. This could help identify patients who are in abusive relationships before referring them for counseling and other help.

“Sex education programs that teach about consent, pleasure, and healthy relationship communication and decision-making may reduce both in-person and technology-facilitated sexual violence,” Dr. Eaton concludes.

The findings are published in the journal Victims & Offenders.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.