Reports of sextortion — online blackmail scams involving nude images — have surged in Calgary over the past year, and young men and boys are most frequently targeted.
In 2022, Calgary Police Services received 184 reports of sextortion. This year, CPS has already received 195 reports as of October.
A Wednesday news release from CPS says 86 per cent of sextortion reports are male victims — and 70 per cent of those are boys and young men, between 13 and 25 years old.
Sextortion is a form of financially-motivated blackmail where scammers threaten to share nude images of the person being victimized unless they are paid. Sextortion often involves strangers overseas who seek out kids — typically boys — and groom them, luring victims into exchanging nude photos.
“Scammers typically demand payment of approximately $1,000 as they know that most young people would not be able to produce exorbitant amounts of money,” reads the release.
‘Don’t be a wang’
And sextortion is on the rise across Alberta.
The CPS news release comes after Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) rolled out a campaign on Tuesday called “Butt Out, Creeps,” which is meant to target young people and minors to talk about the dangers of sextortion.
ALERT and the Internet Child Exploitation unit (ICE) received nearly 3,000 reports of child exploitation cases last year, marking a 185 per cent increase over the past five years, according to CPS.
ALERT spokesperson Mike Tucker calls sextortion a “debilitating offence.”
“It’s a rampant issue. It’s a global phenomenon. We’ve seen our stats increase year over year,” he said.
“When you’re talking to scammers who are extorting you and there’s the threat of, ‘You have to pay me or I’m going to release nude images’ … That’s world-ending stuff for kids, who are spending so much time online.”
Yet CPS says sextortion arrests and charges can be challenging, because much like other online scams, suspects often operate internationally.
But the ALERT spokesperson says “we simply can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”
“This is why we’ve launched this campaign. We need to take drastic steps, think creatively, out-of-the-box, to try to get this message across,” Tucker said.
The campaign ads, in a nod to emojis often used for sexual innuendo, feature videos of a dancing eggplant with the tagline “don’t be a wang,” and a singing peach encouraging young people to “never share nudes.”
Geared toward victims between 10 and 17 years old, the “Butt Out, Creeps” website features easy access to links and resources for reporting sextortion.
Victims of online sexual exploitation
Even though it is illegal to solicit, share or view sexually explicit content of minors, data from Canada’s national tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children — Cybertip.ca — shows that reports on the sexual luring of minors increased by 815 per cent from 2018 to 2022.
Cybertip.ca statistics also reveal that sextortion reports have increased by 150 per cent from June 2022 to this August.
Kelly Sundberg, associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University, says increased screen time exacerbated by COVID-19 is partially to blame, putting everyone at greater risk of targeted attacks online.
“People’s screen time, especially young people, is at an unhealthy level. It’s at a dangerous level,” he said.
But Sundberg also says shame is part of the problem. In sextortion cases, Sundberg says, parents are frequently alerted only after they notice their child’s bank account is empty.
“Obviously it’s very embarrassing for a young person to tell their parents or guardians that they sent an intimate photo to an unknown person over the Internet and now they’re being extorted. They’re terrified,” he said.
“Parents have to understand and be open and accepting when they are confronted with these situations so that their kids understand that they’re not going to get in trouble, that they are the victim of a crime.”
The criminology professor says young people feeling like they have no one to turn to for help can lead to increased suicide risk. He believes ALERT’s campaign will help parents, children and young adults.
Sextortion can take place anywhere online — the ALERT ads are mostly being run on social media platforms like Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube. Dating apps and gaming websites are also common places to watch for sextortion.
Tucker says it’s important for young people who are experiencing sextortion to know they are not alone and there are resources available.
“You don’t have to take this on all by yourself. We have trained investigators who can help you with this.”