But child protection advocates are warning about an emerging phenomenon called “sextortion,” a devious practice in which predators take advantage of webcams and the emotional vulnerability of teenagers to elicit sexual favours.
Paul Gillespie, president and CEO of the Toronto-based Kids' Internet Safety Alliance (KINSA), says sexual extortion has become a major concern for law enforcement officials worldwide.
“For colleagues of mine from Australia, from Sweden, this is absolutely at the top of their radar right now, the number one issue,” he says.
Gillespie says the individuals, known colloquially as “cappers,” typically meet the victim on a social media site and through flattery draws them into exposing him- or herself on a webcam. The capper then captures or records that footage without their knowledge.
A small percentage of these individuals also extort the victims with the threat of posting it to a wider audience. In exchange for keeping the humiliating photos or footage secret, the sextortionist may demand that the victim perform sexual acts on camera, says Gillespie.
A large percentage of the victims are teen girls who are on social media sites simply looking for friendship, says Det. Const. Stephanie Morgan of the Kingston Police.
They’re "naive and they're trusting. So they're not expecting that ‘There's a person on my list who's out to extort me,’” Morgan told CBC-TV’s the fifth estate, which airs the documentary The Sextortion of Amanda Todd on Nov. 15.
Lessons from Amanda Todd
Todd is the Port Coquitlam, B.C. teen who took her life in October 2012 after being tormented online for years.
Many think of Todd’s case as one of cyberbullying, but the harrassment was much more calculated than that, says Signy Arnason, director of Cybertip.ca, a national tipline where people can report child sexual exploitation online.
“I think the bullying was kind of the secondary effect of what occurred in Amanda’s case,” Arnason told the fifth estate.
In the month before her death, Todd posted a video on YouTube in which she used handwritten cards to convey her story. She wrote that her troubles started after an unknown person talked her into exposing herself in front of a webcam.
This individual blackmailed her and spread the photos online, thereby inviting taunts from her schoolmates and effectively destroying her reputation. The person has never been identified or caught.
“This individual was out to ruin her life online, and that’s how it seeped into her peers finding out and that’s how the cyberbullying ensued,” says Arnason.
While the Todd case shocked many Canadians, Gillespie says that sexual extortion is happening with increasing regularity all around the world.
“In the last five years or so, it’s become more prevalent and people are finally starting to take notice of it,” says Gillespie.
While this kind of extortion could happen to people of any age who share sexual images of themselves online, teens are of special concern because “their brain is not [fully] developed, they’re impulsive, sexually curious and it’s a lethal combination,” says Arnason.
One of the most significant cases to make it to court in Canada involved Mark Bedford, a 23-year-old man from Kingston, Ont., who in 2008 was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to 10 charges involving victims as young as 10 years old.
The charges against Bedford included making child pornography, extortion, impersonation and criminal harassment.
The prosecutor told the court that Bedford's crimes involved several hundred girls and young women in numerous countries. In one incident, Bedford encouraged a 12-year-old victim to commit bestiality.
Don’t fit the profile
Law enforcement officials agree that sextortion is an increasing problem, but because it is still a relatively new phenomenon, there is no hard data on how frequently it happens, says Michelle Collins, vice-president of the exploited children division of the U.S. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
What differentiates these individuals from the typical predator is that they don’t aim to create a deep connection with the victim in order to meet them in person, says Collins.
“In the typical luring case, there’s an effort by an individual to forge an emotional relationship with a child,” she says. But online sextortionists “work much faster in targeting the children. There’s no interest on the part of the offender to build a relationship.”
One of the hallmarks of this type of crime, however, is that the perpetrators don’t fit the usual profile of online predators, says Det. Const. Morgan, who was involved in the investigation of Mark Bedford.
When people picture a typical online predator, “they picture a person… [in their] mid-40s, 50s, male who targets young women, lying about who he is, saying he’s a young teen boy, maybe. This is not actually the case in the good majority of cases we deal with,” Morgan told the fifth estate.
“The offenders in these cases are getting younger and younger.”
Arnason acknowledges that “there are those that are solely doing it for sexual interest,” but she notes that for many sextortionists, it’s a power trip.
She notes there is an online capper community that even hands out awards to the most successful cappers.
Sextortionists “get a sick and perverse rush out of completely humiliating and embarrassing these kids, and in some instances may even celebrate the fact that they’ve prompted the suicide of some of these kids,” Arnason says.