Dating scams involving “sextortion” in Australia have skyrocketed in the past two years, but remain largely underreported and unprosecuted. Now, a major new study hopes to better understand the crime — and pave the way for legislative change.
Tracey* deleted all her social media accounts, moved out of her home of 17 years and lost most of her savings after a romantic relationship begun online turned exploitative.
The 53-year-old widow was befriended by a man on Facebook in March this year, and an online courtship evolved over several months.
Peter, as Tracey knew him, claimed to be a British businessman based in Hong Kong, with plans to relocate to her home town of Melbourne.
“We spoke on the phone [only a few times], but he said he was always in meetings or at a conference and could message rather than talk. And I was busy with grandkids and my work anyway, so it kind of worked,” Tracey says.
Tracey and Peter’s relationship soon became more intimate and nude photographs were shared between the two.
“It’s not like I’ve ever done anything [sent another person nude images] before but I believed that Pete and I were really becoming close and soon he’d be moving nearby,” Tracey says.
But the person posing as Peter was, in fact, a scam artist who threatened to share the photos and video Tracey had sent him with her employer and children if she did not pay him.
“He had access to my friends list [on Facebook], knew where I worked because of LinkedIn and even referred to my boss by name,” she says.
“He at first demanded $3,500 but I told him I simply don’t have that money. So he settled on $1,800 on the proviso I transfer it the next day.”
Tracey wired the money through a money transfer service, but did not report Peter’s threat to authorities.
She moved house three weeks later because she feared the blackmail would continue, or that he would come to her house. She told her three adult children the move was so she could be closer to her grandkids.
Sextortion rates: ‘Only the tip of the iceberg’
Tracey was the victim of what is known as “sextortion” — a form of digital blackmail where sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favours and or money.
Sextortion — which is a form of “revenge porn” — is a growing problem in Australia that authorities are struggling to effectively address, in part because it is grossly underreported and so many perpetrators are based overseas.
This year, the ACCC’s scam reporting website, ScamWatch, has received up to 53 new reports of sextortion each month. In 2015, the highest number of monthly reports was 16.
In each case, victims paid between $200 and $3,500 to keep their online partners from releasing information or images.
“I still believe this is only the tip of the iceberg,” says ACCC spokesperson, Delia Rickard.
“I am constantly meeting people who have never reported their cases. They figure they can never get the money back or they feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Ms Rickard adds: “My advice is, don’t share intimate photos of videos with people you meet online. The other is to be mindful of your privacy settings.”
Men also likely to be victims
There is a misconception that online dating fraud targets women. However, Ms Rickard says men are just as vulnerable.
“Both genders can fall into the trap,” she says.
Like John, a married man his 40s who uses online dating services.
As part of an online “sugar relationship” arrangement, John agreed in December 2015 to pay “Alison” — who he thought was a 20-year-old arts student — to go on a date with him.
Instead, Alison, who he never met up with, threatened to go to his wife with copies of explicit text messages and videos of him masturbating which he had sent her.
“She insisted our first meeting be behind my work office because her sexual fantasy was to have sex with a man in a suit in a corporate car park,” John, who had specified only his first name and used a non-identifying photo on his profile, says.
“But what she was really doing was [tracking] down exactly who I was and where I worked.”
Alison also called his home phone — which was publicly listed — and left a message asking for John to “please call Alison back”.
“When I realised she had managed to communicate with my wife, I realised this was … premeditated. So I paid her what she wanted,” John says.
John would not disclose how much he paid, describing it only as “thousands”.
When Alison attempted to blackmail John a fourth time, he says he told her “to just go ahead and tell my wife”.
“She hasn’t yet,” he says, “but I think she’s moved on to her next victim”.
John says he is considering reporting the incidents to police, but is concerned it could have repercussions on his family life.
Australian-first study underway
A 2016 report from the US-based Brookings Institution suggested sextortion was grossly understudied, despite its prevalence, “unspeakable brutality” and the fact that offenders, like perpetrators of other sex crimes, tend to be prolific repeat offenders.
“This is not a matter of playful consensual sexting,” its authors wrote. “Sextortion, rather, is a form of sexual exploitation, coercion, and violence, often but not always of children.”
The report also noted perpetrators, in its sample at least, were all male.
Yet surprisingly, until now, there have been no major studies of sextortion undertaken in Australia.
The first glimpse into this growing area of crime was in a 2015 study on digital harassment and abuse.
In it, researchers from RMIT found 1 in 10 Australians (aged 18-54) had had a nude or semi-nude image of them distributed online or sent to others without their permission.
Now, Dr Nicola Henry, a senior lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at La Trobe University and the co-author of the digital abuse report, has launched Australia’s first research project into sextortion.
The study will survey 3,000 men and women in order to gain better insight into the prevalence, and nature, of image-based abuse.
Sextortion: We need better laws
Working in collaboration with researchers in the UK and New Zealand, Dr Henry hopes her findings will encourage more people to report the crime.
“We know victims are reluctant to report image-based sexual abuse to the police — they may not know that what has happened to them is a crime,” Dr Henry says.
“They may worry that police and others will view the images, or if the case proceeds to trial, that members of the public will be able to search for their images online.”
Dr Henry also believes authorities need more training to avoid victim blaming attitudes, which are common.
So-called “revenge porn” laws have recently been introduced in South Australia and Victoria, making it illegal to distribute, create and distribute sexually explicit images without consent.
The NSW government has also moved to criminalise the behaviour.
However, Dr Henry warns it’s a difficult area to police, given most complaints made to ScamWatch are about offenders based overseas, where Australian laws do not apply.
“We hope our work will lead to the introduction of specific criminal legislation at the federal level, as well as in the states and territories that currently do not have laws in place,” she says.
*Names have been changed to protect interview subjects’ privacy.