Saanich police say they’re getting a growing number of reports of “sextortion,” where someone threatens to reveal an individual’s online sexual behaviour if they don’t pay a certain amount of money — often using pictures or videos that victims have been convinced to send.
Police said numbers of sextortion reports have been rising since last year, and they receive several every month.
The Saanich cases primarily involve male youth, and some of the victims have harmed themselves, police say, adding most sextortion scams are run by criminal groups in eastern Europe and Africa. The department has an Internet child-exploitation investigator.
The warning follows the death in Prince George of 12-year-old Carson Cleland, who killed himself in October after becoming a victim of sextortion. After Carson’s death, his parents urged other parents to talk to their children about how not to fall victim to online predators.
In October, 37-year-old Kevin Robert McCarty of Oregon was sentenced to 20 months in prison for using social media to stalk and sexually exploit three teenage girls from the West Shore, the Comox Valley and Surrey. McCarty primarily used Snapchat to lure the girls, and also communicated using Instagram, Google mail and Internet voice calls.
Saanich Sgt. Damian Kowalewich said parents and guardians need to be honest with youth about the dangers of online activity, particularly if they are chatting with people they have not met in real life.
The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre received more than 52,000 sextortion reports in 2020-21, marking a 510 per cent increase over seven years.
Elizabeth Saewyc, director of the University of B.C. School of Nursing, who has studied sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, said it can be tricky for parents to stay on top of their children’s online lives.
“It’s difficult because young people are on digital media, on their phones or websites or even in the games that they’re playing that have these features that allow you to talk to other people,” said Saewyc.
Saewyc said predators can also be skilled at moving quickly to get youth to let their guard down and believe there is an “intimate” relationship in the works.
For parents, she said part of the preventive process is having conversations stressing to their children that people they encounter on the Internet “may not be who they say they are.”
Certain things should raise a young person’s suspicions, Saewyc said, including someone they’ve never met in real life claiming to be falling in love right away, or asking them to move to a different software platform — or even asking right away for a picture of their face.
“Be cautious, be wary and if they’re asking for something more, be aware that it might go somewhere you never expected and it may not be something that you can remove from the Internet.”
Of the more than 2,300 cases of sextortion in Canada reported from Sept. 1, 2022 to Aug. 31, 2o23 to Cybertip.ca, a sexual-abuse tip line, 91 per cent involved boys under 18, and 84 per cent of cases occurred on Instagram or Snapchat.
Saewyc said the reason so many cases involve males could be linked to a general societal notion that they aren’t as much at risk as females.
“We do a lot to try to protect girls from being propositioned by people or avoiding strangers and being sexually harassed and things like that, but we don’t necessarily think about or have this perspective that boys can be targeted, as well.”
As a result, boys and young men might not be as prepared to be cautious or to feel like they don’t have to be responsive to something online, she said.
Saewyc is the research director with the McCreary Centre Society, which conducts the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey every five years, and said the 2018 survey looked into how youth in Grade 7-12 used their phones.
They were asked things like how confident they were that they could say no to texting an intimate picture or message, she said, adding eight per cent of young people either didn’t think they could say no or weren’t sure.
She said access to pornography on the Internet could also be a factor.
In March, the provincial government passed the Intimate Images Protection Act to create new legal tools to prevent non-consensual distribution of intimate images online, and said it plans to launch an online platform in January where people can report their intimate images being circulated without their consent.
Saanich police offered the following advice for dealing with sextortion:
- Tell your parent or guardian what is happening.
- Don’t give in to threats, never pay money and never send additional intimate pictures.
- For investigative purposes, save all texts, images and communications, and take screenshots of messages and the profile of the person involved.
- Make a report through Cybertip.ca. and report the person contacting you via the social-media platform they are using.
- Know that you are not alone and police can help.