Mounties in Metro Vancouver have issued a warning about a recent increase in “sextortion,” saying police have received a “large number” of reports of money-motivated extortion targeting young girls and boys.
The statement issued by Coquitlam RCMP follows similar warnings from police departments in other provinces in recent months, including in Alberta and Ontario.
Stephen Sauer, the director of Cybertip.ca, a tip line operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, says the online sextortion of children is on the rise as criminals take advantage of pandemic-driven increases in the amount of time kids are spending online.
He says there’s also a “double-silencing effect” among victims, who often don’t tell anyone about the extortion because they’ve been convinced to share sexual images and are afraid of getting into trouble.
The victims are pulled “deeper and deeper” into the extortion, he says, as the criminals continue harassing them, threatening to publicly share the personal images as they try to extract as much money as they can.
Sauer says his organization typically receives 200 or more sextortion tips each month, a number that’s been on the rise, particularly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as children spent more time online for school and social connections.
Looking into “chatter amongst the offending community” early in the pandemic, he says they noticed the harassers “understood that they had more unfettered access to kids.”
“I think we’re seeing quite a boom in this type of exploitation,” he says.
Sauer says his organization has heard from law enforcement agencies that “there are pockets of these individuals, these extorters, that appear to be international.”
The majority of victims who contact the tip line seeking support are boys and young men between the ages of 15 and 25, Sauer says, adding most incidents are occurring over the social media platforms Instagram and Snapchat.
The statement from Coquitlam RCMP says a suspect often begins a “flirtatious” online relationship and convinces the victim to send nude photos or videos before threatening to distribute the images unless the child sends some kind of payment.
The suspects use techniques to protect their identities and they do not always live in Canada, which makes it difficult to investigate and prosecute, police say.
Cpl. Alexa Hodgins says in the statement the suspects rely on fear and shame to extort anything they can from the victim who may be too afraid to ask for help.
The police want young victims, who often attempt to deal with the extortion themselves because they’re too afraid to speak with their parents, to know that it’s OK and they’re encouraged to ask for help by speaking with an adult, she says.
The Mounties are urging parents to “be open about online behaviour” and work with their children to ensure they aren’t sharing sensitive personal images.
The statement from Coquitlam RCMP comes shortly after a similar warning by police in nearby New Westminster last month. The department says it had received “several reports of sextortion” and encourages parents to have conversations with their children about the potential risks of “using technology to experiment sexually.”
—Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press