Why teenage boys are the top target for sextortion
It’s a cold morning in October and the Southern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation Team (ICE) knocks on a door with a warrant to search a home.
It’s not just the suspect the police are looking for – it’s the evidence too. They are looking for specific electronic devices – phones, computers, drives – that may contain child sexual abuse material (CSAM), more commonly known as child pornography.
ICE has been working on this case for over a year. A series of tips alerted them to the suspect.
“We received 12 different reports from two different social networking sites,” said Det. Leigh Happner, who is the lead on this file, told Global News The New Reality.
Law enforcement agencies have seen a huge increase in cases related to online sexual abuse against children. ICE is one of the dedicated police units that investigates these types of crimes.
“When I started in 2013 … I don’t even think we would reach 400 cases for the entire year,” said the nearly 10-year ICE veteran. “This year we are on track … to hit almost 1,500 cases.”
That number only accounts for about half of Alberta.
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Data collected from Statistics Canada reveals an alarming picture.
Between 2017 and 2021, police-reported cybercrimes show around 30,000 offenses of online child luring, and making and distributing child pornography. These crimes are also vastly underreported, so the true burden is unknown.
“I don’t think people really understand the magnitude of the problem and the amount of material that’s out there on the Internet,” Happner said.
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Canada’s sextortion boom coincides with pandemic’s online shift: ‘It’s out of control’
ICE Det. Justin Brookes points to his computer to show “one of 375 pages from different IP addresses” in Alberta that are engaged in this type of illegal material “over the last 30 days.”
“On any given day there are probably hundreds … thousands of targets within our jurisdiction,” Brookes said.
There is another threat that grows exponentially, especially in 2022 and during the pandemic. Police across the country are issuing warnings to the public about the online sexual extortion or sex dumping of minors.
Sextortion is a form of online extortion where criminals trick young people through various digital platforms to obtain explicit images. Victims are then threatened and blackmailed for money or more material.
“In the first six months, we had a 150 percent increase in the number of reports,” said Stephen Sauer, director of Canada’s national youth online sex crimes tip line, Cybertip.ca.
Teenage boys make up the vast majority of sextortion victims
Although Internet extortionists target all youth, the greatest increase in cases involves teenage boys.
“About 90 percent of the sex assault victims who report to us are young men,” Sauer said The New Reality.
Teenage boys between 14 and 17 are most affected by these crimes. Experts said boys are more likely to start communicating with someone on social media – especially when they think it’s someone their own age who is sexually interested in them.
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The criminals they target are mainly from overseas crime groups, and they often trick the boys into believing they are communicating with a girl and send sexually explicit images. Then the perpetrator threatens to distribute the images and tries to blackmail them for money.
“The extortionist is looking … for financial gains,” Det. Dean Jacobs of ICE. “The boys will send a picture or video and then they’ll get a message right back saying, well, thanks for the picture, but I want money from you now.”
Girls are also targeted, but authorities said perpetrators tend to be sexually interested in them, so girls are blackmailed for more content.
Sauer said people sometimes shame the victim for sending the photos or videos to the perpetrator in the first place — as if they somehow planted them.
“Sex dumping is one of those things where there’s a lot of victim blaming that goes on,” Sauer said.
In recent years, a frightening pattern has emerged among youths being sexually blackmailed. Possibly feeling there was no way out, some took their own lives, sometimes within hours of being blackmailed.
This is exactly what Sarah feared would happen to her son.
We changed her name and hide her identity because she is worried that her son will be stigmatized. She wants to share her story to warn parents and help other teenagers.
In January, Sarah’s son was the victim of a sex assault by a person he believed to be a young woman in her early 20s. He was 15 at the time.
“He literally came into the room hyperventilating,” Sarah said.
She said the person on the other side of the screen was flirting with her son and convinced him to send a sexualized video.
“This person made him believe they were having sex,” Sarah said. “‘Hey, let’s do it on video’ while the video was being recorded and then used as blackmail for the money.”
After it was sent, they “immediately” asked for $500, she said.
Sarah told her son to block the person. It did not help. The scammer sent the video to his friends and family on Facebook.
“It’s heartbreaking to … see their life fall apart and there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
Sarah got her son into counseling right away because “if we hadn’t … I don’t think we would have our son today.”
The emotional impact of sexual blackmail
Asia Easton turned her attention to studying online sexual abuse in 2016, when she was approached by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative based in the United States to help lawmakers understand the impact on survivors.
“The fault really lies with the person who transgresses…. as is true with any sexual assault,” said Eaton, an associate professor of psychology at Florida International University.
What she found was a portrait of immense emotional and physical distress.
“It’s really scary to have this happen to you,” she told Global News.
Eaton’s research showed that survivors experienced a wide range of symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, insomnia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
“I was recently an expert witness for a victim-survivor in New York State who called a suicide hotline very soon after she began being sexually assaulted because she felt there was no other escape,” she said. . “So the consequences are enormous.”
One of the challenges of fighting cyber sexual crimes is that the perpetrators can be anywhere in the world.
“We believe that many of the targets come from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and they are looking for people worldwide,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs investigates sex dump cases for ICE. He said that if a perpetrator or “target” is not on Canadian soil, they can reach out to partner law enforcement agencies for help.
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“With this particular crime, we’re reaching out to Ivory Coast and … Nigeria through the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,” he said, “and they’re reaching out to their partners … on the ground out there … to make arrests these targets.”
When the offender lives in Southern Alberta, Jacobs’ ICE unit can go on site to investigate. Unlike many other online child exploitation teams across Canada, his team has MERTL – a mobile evidence recovery technology lab essential to catching criminals.
“When I first started, we grabbed everything…. But now we can actually do previews right (at) the house on the day of a search warrant,” said Jacobs, who has been with ICE for about 15 years.
From the street, MERTL looks like an unassuming white truck. But when you open it and get inside, there is specialized equipment to try to crack open any electronic device. Global News got rare access inside.
For members of the ICE unit, it has completely changed the way they do business. This is because officers can search and seize items from a suspect’s home and bring them to MERTL for the forensic investigators to see if there is any evidence on them.
“It’s invaluable,” Happner said. “It may help to arrest one of the residents of the house.”
Back on the scene in Calgary, the detectives entered the home. Over the course of the next few hours, officers bring exhibits to MERTL. The three forensic investigators carefully comb through them all.
“It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs,” said Chief Forensic Investigator Allen La Fontaine. “Can we find the device used for these offences? And then if we can find that device, is the data still there that we’re looking for?”
La Fontaine dismantles a computer tower seized from the house. The other technicians work on a USB drive and the suspect’s cell phone.
They don’t have the password so opening the phone was a challenge.
“In Canada, they don’t have to give the password, so we have to figure it out,” he said.
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After hours of searching, and coming up empty, one of the examiners said they found some disturbing videos.
The suspect now faces five changes.
While it is too soon to say what the outcome will be, and all allegations will have to be tested in court, one thing is clear: in an increasingly digital world, online child sexual exploitation is virtually impossible to control.
It is prolific, and the police will not be able to stop it alone.
“No, we’re not going to arrest our way out,” Brookes said. “Knowing that you can only scratch the surface of what’s going on, that to me … is the hardest part of my job.”