VANCOUVER – The massive shift online triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a boom in so-called “sextortion scams,” new data from Statistics Canada suggests.

As authorities seek to educate youth and parents about online sex crimes, experts are calling for more regulation, education and law enforcement.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, occurs when someone threatens to distribute private, often sexually explicit, material online if the victim does not comply with their demands, usually for money.

The crime came to national attention nearly a decade ago when Amanda Todd, 15, of Port Coquitlam, BC, killed herself after posting a video in which she used flashcards to describe being tormented by an anonymous cyberstalker. It has been viewed more than 14 million times.

The trial of her alleged harasser, Dutch national Aydin Coban, began in June in the British Columbia Supreme Court.

He pleaded not guilty to extortion, stalking, contacting a youth to commit a sexual offense, and possession and distribution of child pornography. He was not charged in connection with Todd’s death.

Closing arguments in the case ended earlier this week and the jury is now deliberating.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Center for Child Protection, said the problem has grown exponentially since Todd took his own life in October 2012.

“It’s out of control,” he said in an interview.

Police across the country have been issuing warnings to the public about sextortion scams targeting youth.

“Unfortunately, police around the world have tragically seen some of these incidents end in victims taking their own lives,” said Nova Scotia RCMP Internet Child Exploitation Unit, Cpl. Mark Sobieraj said in a press release last week. “We urge parents and guardians to talk to children about potential dangers, emphasizing that they can come to you for help.”

Statistics Canada data released Tuesday shows that police-reported extortion cases in Canada have risen nearly 300 per cent in the past decade, but crime has risen significantly during the pandemic.

Incidents of non-consensual distribution of intimate images involving adult or minor victims increased by 194 cases in 2021, representing a nine percent increase from the previous year and a 52 percent increase compared to the median. five years previous.

“These worrying increases are being facilitated by social media platforms and other electronic service providers,” Canadian Center for Child Protection Executive Director Lianna McDonald said in a press release. “It should be a wake-up call.”

Cybertip.ca, a national tip line for reporting child sexual abuse online, said it has received “an unprecedented volume of reports from young people and sometimes their parents concerned that they are falling victim to aggressive sextortion tactics,” which represents about 300 cases of online extortion per month. .

Wayne MacKay, professor emeritus of law at Dalhousie University, said the rise could be explained in part by awareness and better policing of cybercrime, but featured research also suggests online child sexual abuse often goes unreported. .

A review of the 322 sextortion cases received by Cybertip.ca in July found that when the gender was known, 92 percent of them involved boys or young men.

“The review also showed an emerging tactic where the victim is sent nude child images of the person behind the fake account. The offender will then threaten to report the victim to the police, claiming that she is in possession of child sexual abuse material. Demands for money immediately follow,” the child protection center said in a press release this week.

David Fraser, an Internet and privacy lawyer at the Canadian law firm McInnes Cooper in Halifax, said a main reason some young people may not come forward is because they believe they could be charged with child pornography of their own image. . He said this is a widespread misconception, sometimes even among law enforcement.

“We have to be very careful about the messages that we send to young people, just to make sure that there are safe places that they can go and get support before things escalate,” Fraser said.

He cited a 2001 Canadian Supreme Court decision that established a “personal use” exception to child pornography provisions. He said young people have the right to create intimate images of themselves as long as they do not depict illegal sexual activity, are kept for private use only and were created with the consent of the people in the image.

Fraser would like to see more police resources and education on the subject.

“Overall, I’ve seen a general lack of skill and competence on the part of law enforcement to take existing laws and translate them into online context,” he said.

“Extortion is extortion, whether you’re extorting someone by threatening to reveal nude photos you’ve extorted them for, or you’re extorting someone through other, more conventional forms of blackmail.”

Molly Reynolds, an attorney at Torys LLP in Toronto, said her civil caseload for sexual extortion has increased significantly.

“The demand is huge. It is a crisis of at least 10 years, and we are just beginning to understand it more broadly across Canada,” she said. “There are still a lot of people who don’t really come to the attention of the police when they report this criminal behavior.”

She said civil court tends to be a better option for adult victims who know their perpetrator.

“You are more likely to see a response from law enforcement if you can fall for child pornography offenses, and not just non-consensual distribution or voyeurism offenses,” he said.

“(Children) are somehow better served through criminal proceedings, while adults, I think, have to resort more often to civil proceedings.”

Darren Laur, director of training for White Hatter, an Internet safety and digital literacy education company, said the law has not kept up with technological advances.

He said so-called deepfakes, in which an existing image or video is used to create fake but believable video footage, will create new challenges because extortionists will no longer need to force a person to perform explicit acts.

“The reality is that people will use the goodness of technology and sometimes weaponize it. That’s the problem with deepfakes. I sense that deepfakes are going to be weaponized, especially when it comes to technology-facilitated sexual abuse,” said Laur, who is a retired police sergeant from Victoria.

Reynolds agreed, but said he doesn’t think the law can “keep up with technology and the harm it can create.”

“I think the courts have a very important role to play in interpreting what we already have and allowing it to evolve as technological risks evolve. We need to be able to make it easier for people to take these cases to court, whether it’s criminal or civil, and test the limits,” he said.

McDonald of the Canadian Center for Child Protection has begun calling for more regulation of social media companies, including Snapchat and Instagram, where the organization has found most of the harm to children occurs.

“This is an ongoing problem that is getting worse, so it really begs the question of what are these companies doing to keep children safe? It is unbelievable that social media platforms allow complete adult strangers to directly approach and target our children without any consequence,” he said in a press release on Thursday.

Laur said she has been calling for the creation of an online regulatory agency, such as Australia’s Electronic Security Commissioner, for years.

“They basically have the plan on how to do this,” he said. “We need something similar here in our country.”

The Department of Canadian Heritage said in a statement that the federal government is “currently developing an approach to address harmful content online, including the possible creation of a regulatory body.”

As part of this process, he said Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez “is currently holding roundtables across Canada to hear from victims of online harm, including children and youth.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 6, 2022.

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