Sextortion cases on the rise in Utah, surrounding states

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A young woman uses her phone. Sextortion is an online crime that often begins on social media apps and involves the offender blackmailing an individual using intimate photos they have sent. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Sextortion, or the threat of distribution of sensitive and private images in exchange for further images, sexual favors or money, is on the rise around the country and in the local community.

According to a January press release, the FBI has received more than 7,000 reports nationally related to online financial sextortion over the past year, with many of the victims being young boys. The crime has led to more than a dozen suicides, according to the FBI.

The Salt Lake City FBI office has seen a rise in sextortion cases in Utah, Idaho and Montana, with dozens of cases being reported every month, as stated in the press release.

“The sexual exploitation of teens is something we’ve seen a significantly growing presence of,” Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Aaron Eisner said in a public service announcement released by the FBI Salt Lake City Field Office in January.

Sextortion crimes are on the rise, with law enforcement receiving over 7,000 reports in the past year. Sextortion occurs when a person is blackmailed by intimate or compromising photos of themselves. (Made in Canva by Marissa Lundeen)

As internet dating and meeting people via social media has become increasingly prevalent, sending intimate photos of one’s self has become a sort of “dating currency,” according to Carl Hollan, an attorney who has prosecuted sex crimes for several years.

“We’ve seen a normalization of sending out sexualized photos, but at the same time there’s also still some level of secrecy and privacy attached to it. Sextortion preys on the fact people send these photos out but they don’t want them to get widespread. That’s when the offender can demand money or sexual favors in exchange for not releasing those photos,” Hollan said.

Elle Martin, victim advocate for the BYU Police, said common forms of sextortion include blackmailing victims with sexual images or videos, disseminating private information or threatening to reveal embarrassing information. Martin encourages individuals to familiarize themselves with the laws surrounding image-based abuse and consider the possible implications before sending intimate photos.

“Don’t ever underestimate the consequences when sharing personal and private data,” Martin said. “Victims of sextortion may not realize the consequences of sharing intimate images or videos, such as a lack of control over how and where the material is shared. It is important that you do not accept friend requests from people you do not know.”

For victims of sextortion, Hollan recommends reporting it to the police. Although bringing these situations to light can sometimes be embarrassing or difficult to share, Hollan shared that in his experience, sexual crimes thrive in secrecy.

“Because these crimes grow in the dark and secrecy, I think the best course of action is to bring it out of secrecy and report it to the police … the police are trained to handle this, aren’t judgmental and won’t look down on somebody for what that person has chosen to do,” Hollan said.

Victims of sextortion may be fearful of reporting for many reasons. Offenders may threaten to share their private photos with an online audience or even their family, friends and work leaders if they report. Additionally, many cases of sextortion involve former romantic partners whom victims may be hesitant to file a criminal case against.

For victims of sextortion who want to report but do not want it to result in a criminal case, there are ways the police can handle the situation so it does not result in a criminal lawsuit.

“I think reporting to the police is a good first step and you can explore your options without having committed yourself to following through on a criminal case,” Hollan said.

According to Hollan, many of the worst perpetrators of sextortion are serial offenders. As difficult as reporting instances of sextortion may be, it is important for victims to come forward so they do not have to continue enduring harm and can help stop the offenders from doing the same thing to others.

“If someone is threatening to share intimate images of you, take steps to limit their access. This may include deleting the content from your devices or disabling your social media accounts.  It’s also important to document any threats you have received. Then, contact the police and make a report,” Martin said.

If someone has sent sexualized photos of themselves and is now being threatened by them, it is important to remember there is help available and the abuse does not need to continue. If a child is being sexually exploited online, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline at 1-800-843-5678. You can also call the Provo police at 801-852-6210 or report the crime to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov.

Those convicted of sextortion crimes are required to register themselves on the Utah sex offender registry and are required to stay on the registry for ten years.

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