Social Media Manipulation is Most Common Form of Sextortion, Study Finds

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — The most common form of sextortion is "social media manipulation" according to a Brookings Institute Report released Wednesday, which found that 83 percent of sextortion is done by tricking victims into sending compromising photos then using extortion to get more photos — a scam nicknamed "catfishing."

The Brookings Insitute Report studied 78 prosecuted cases of sextortion — 63 at the federal level, 12 at the state level and three foreign cases — for its report. Of the victims in those cases, 1,397 were identified, but researchers estimate that number to be as high as 6,500, since many victims are afraid or ashamed to speak out.

The report defines sextortion as “old-fashioned extortion or blackmail, carried out over a computer network, involving some threat — generally but not always a threat to release sexually-explicit images of the victim — if the victim does not engage in some form of further sexual activity.”

The researchers also found that the vast majority of victims were female. Every single perpetrator in the 78 cases studied were male.

About 71 percent of the cases only involved victims who were minors and 12 percent involved only victims who were adults. About 18 percent of cases involved both adult and minor victims.

In cases involving minor victims, perpetrators saw harsher sentences due to child pornography laws, the study found. Sentences in cases where adult victims pressed charges for stalking, extortion or computer intrusion were less harsh.

Victims who were interviewed said they felt trapped in a form of "sexual slavery" and lived in a constant state of anxiety, fear and helplessness. One victim said the experience made her become "a hollow shell," while an FBI expert involved in the study said sextortion can have a "devastating emotional effect."

During a live-streamed discussion held by the Brookings Institute this morning, New York-based civil attorney Carrie Goldberg, who specializes in sextortion cases, mentioned two of the worst cases she's worked on. In one, a woman was coerced into marriage with her sextortionist because he threatened to send photos of her to people in her home Muslim country.

The second case involved a case where the sextortionist "had his victim defecate on herself and eat it."

"This really is a different kind of evil," Goldberg said.

During the same discussion, University of Maryland Law Professor Danielle Citron said she feels law enforcement's response to several sextortion cases are lackluster — mainly because local department are not properly trained.

The Brookings Institute Report comes off the heels of an email sent by administration at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia earlier this week, which discussed two cases of sextortion involving students. Police said unknown suspects gained the victims' trust to broadcast and record sexual acts via webcams, blackmailing them later.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a report that "sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children, with more than 60 percent of survey respondents indicating this type of online enticement of minors was increasing." The Justice Department surveyed investigators, prosecutors analysts and victim service providers to determine the biggest threats to the sexual exploitation of children.

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