Why teen boys are the top target for sextortion
It’s a chilly morning in October and the Southern Alberta Internet Child Exploitation team (ICE) is knocking on a door with a warrant to search a home.
It’s not just the suspect the police are after — it’s also the evidence. They are looking for specific electronic devices — phones, computers, drives — that could contain child sexual abuse material (CSAM), more commonly known as child pornography.
ICE has been working on this case for more than a year. A series of tips alerted them to the suspect.
“We received 12 different reports from two different social networking sites,” 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 relating to online sexual abuse against children. ICE is one of the dedicated police units investigating these types of crimes.
“When I started in 2013 … I don’t even think we’d hit 400 cases for the whole year,” said the almost 10-year ICE veteran. “This year we are on track … to hit close to 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 about 30,000 violations 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 truly understand the scope of the problem and the amount of material that is 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 of different IP addresses” in Alberta engaging in this type of illegal material “over the last 30 days.”
“On any given day, there’s probably hundreds … thousands of targets within our jurisdiction,” said Brookes.
There is another threat that is growing exponentially, especially in 2022 and during the pandemic. Police across the country are issuing warnings to the public about the online sexual extortion or sextortion of minors.
Sextortion is a form of online blackmail where criminals deceive young people through various digital platforms to obtain explicit images. Victims are then threatened and extorted for money or more material.
“In the first six months, we had a 150 per cent increase in the number of reports,” said Stephen Sauer, director of Canada’s national youth tipline for online sexual crimes, Cybertip.ca.
Teen boys make up vast majority of sextortion victims
Although internet blackmailers target all youth, the largest increase in cases involves teen boys.
“About 90 per cent of the sextortion victims that are reporting to us are young males,” Sauer told The New Reality.
Teen boys between 14 to 17 are the most impacted by these crimes. Experts said boys are more likely to start communicating with someone on social media – especially when they think it’s with someone their own age who is sexually interested in them.
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The criminals targeting them are mainly from overseas crime groups, and they often trick the boys into believing they are communicating with a girl and sending sexually explicit images. Then the offender threatens to distribute the images and tries to extort them for money.
“The extorter is looking … for financial gains,” said Det. Dean Jacobs of ICE. “The boys will send a picture or video and then they will then get a message immediately back saying, well, thanks for the picture, but I want money now from you.”
Girls are also being targeted, but authorities said perpetrators tend to be interested in them sexually, so girls are being blackmailed for more content.
Sauer said people sometimes shame the victim for sending the pictures or videos to the offender in the first place – as if they somehow brought this on.
“Sextortion is one of those things where there’s a lot of victim blaming that occurs,” Sauer said.
In recent years, a terrifying pattern has emerged among youth that are sexually extorted. Possibly feeling there’s no way out, some have taken their own lives, at times within hours of being blackmailed.
It’s exactly what Sarah feared would happen to her son.
We have changed her name and are hiding her identity because she worries her son will be stigmatized. She wants to share her story to warn parents and help other teenagers.
In January, Sarah’s son was a victim of sextortion by a person he believed was a young woman in her early 20s. At the time, he was 15.
“He literally came in the room hyperventilating,” Sarah said.
She said the person on the other end of the screen was flirting with her son, and had convinced him to send a sexualized video.
“This person led him to believe they were sexting,” Sarah said. “’Hey, let’s do it on video’ while the video was recorded and then used as blackmail for the money.”
After it was sent, they “instantly” asked for $500, she said.
Sarah told her son to block the person. It didn’t help. The scammer sent the video to his friends and family on Facebook.
“It’s heartbreaking to … watch their life crumble and there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
Sarah got her son immediately into counselling because “had we not done that … I don’t think we would have our son today.”
The emotional impact of sexual extortion
Asia Easton turned her attention towards studying online sexual abuse in 2016, when she was approached by 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 violates …. 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 tremendous emotional and physical distress.
“It is truly terrifying to have this happen to you,” she told Global News.
Eaton’s research showed survivours experienced a wide range of symptoms, including headaches, stomach aches, sleeplessness, anxiety and suicidal ideations.
“I was an expert witness just recently for a victim survivor in the state of New York who called a suicide hotline very shortly after she began to be sextorted because she felt that there was no other escape,” she said. “So the consequences are tremendous.”
One of the challenges in fighting cyber sexual crimes is that the perpetrators could be anywhere in the world.
“We’re believing that a lot of the targets are coming from Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and they’re going after people globally,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs investigates sextortion cases for ICE. He said that if an offender 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 is that we are reaching out to the Ivory Coast and … Nigeria through Department of Homeland Security and the FBI,” he said, “and they’re reaching out to their partners … on the ground out there … to arrest these targets.”
When the perpetrator lives in Southern Alberta, Jacobs’ ICE unit is able to go and investigate on-site. Unlike many other online child exploitation teams across Canada, his team has MERTL – a mobile evidence recovery technology lab that’s vital to catching criminals.
“When I first started, we were seizing everything…. But now we can actually do previews right (at) the house 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 up and get inside, there is specialized equipment to try and crack open any electronic device. Global News was given rare access inside.
For members of the ICE unit, it’s completely transformed the way they do business. That’s because officers can search and seize items from a suspect’s home and bring it into MERTL for the forensic examiners to see if there is any evidence on it.
“It’s invaluable,” said Happner. “It may help lead to the arrest of one of the occupants of the house.”
Back on scene in Calgary, the detectives have entered the home. Over the course of the next few hours, officers bring in exhibits to MERTL. The three forensic examiners meticulously comb through them all.
“It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs,” said lead forensic examiner Allen La Fontaine. “Can we find the device that is being used for these offences? And then if we can find that device, is the data still there that we’re looking for?”
La Fontaine takes apart a computer tower seized from the home. The other techs work on a USB drive and the suspect’s cellphone.
They don’t have the password, so opening the phone has been a challenge.
“In Canada they do not 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 is now facing five changes.
While it’s too soon to tell what the outcome will be, and all allegations will need to be tested in court, one thing is clear: in an increasingly digital world, online sexual exploitation of children is virtually impossible to control.
It’s prolific, and the police won’t be able to stop it alone.
“No, we’re not going to arrest our way out,” said Brookes. “Knowing that you can only just scratch the surface of what’s going on, that to me is … the toughest part of my job.”