Because offenders use a variety of techniques to manipulate minors into producing child sexual abuse material (CSAM), the child exploitation threat is constantly evolving. Some of those techniques include engaging in sextortion and crowdsourcing schemes which use enticement and coercion to victimize children. The unique aspects of crowdsourcing, sextortion, and grooming are discussed below, but all contribute to a rise in “self-generated” sexual content. “Selfgenerated” sexual content can include when an adult offender, whether through deception, trickery, threats, or other means, induces or compels children to record, photograph, or livestream themselves engaging in sexual activity. The Internet Watch Foundation reported a 77% increase in self-generated child sexual abuse content brought to their attention from 2019 to 2020.1 Producing and sharing self-generated CSAM is becoming increasingly common according to survey participants, with 1 in 5 teenage girls and 1 in 10 teenage boys reporting they had shared nude images of themselves.2 It is critical to explore all means to prevent and interdict this form of child exploitation, and to develop appropriate services for the victims. Crowdsourcing, sextortion, enticement, and coercion cases represent a growing and pernicious problem that present significant challenges to investigators. In addition to the barriers noted above that prevent children from reporting online sexual exploitation, many cases go unreported because the minors may not view themselves as victims, as they believed they were chatting and sending images and videos to someone they trusted. Offenders who engage in crowdsourcing schemes are difficult to identify because they constantly change the platforms they use, moving to those they perceive as having the lowest risk of detection, including the Dark Web.
Sextortion occurs when offenders use threats or coercive tactics to cause victims to produce and send sexually explicit imagery of themselves. Offenders utilize a variety of techniques. Most often, they may use grooming techniques, or trickery by pretending to be a minor themselves, to manipulate victims into providing nude or partially nude images or videos of themselves, which they then use to coerce that victim into sending more graphic images and videos or a ransom. Alternatively, or in addition to grooming, they may access other private and sensitive information, such as using social engineering to compromise social media accounts, school information, friend lists, and other personal information. Perpetrators often threaten to post an image or sensitive information publicly or send them to the victim’s friends and family if the child does not comply with their demands to send more sexually explicit images or videos or pay money. Sextortion remains a significant growing threat to children, as it was in the 2016 DOJ National Strategy survey.3 Federal law enforcement has noted a drastic increase in sextortion incidents over the last five years. Despite the growing concern, however, the crime remains remarkably understudied. Dedicated research efforts have provided valuable insight, but no empirical statistics exist that accurately capture the frequency of sextortion cases.4 The extant statistics likely are gross underestimates of the true scope of this problem because victims are understandably apprehensive about reporting the crime due to shame and embarrassment, fear of the offender, or concern that they might get into trouble themselves for creating and sending the images and videos.
In recent years, sextortion has become a major threat, affecting children across all demographics. Sextortion offenders usually threaten minors between the ages of 10 and 17 years, the typical age range for juvenile internet users. Increasingly, however, there is a concerning trend where the offender manipulates the victim to abuse younger siblings or friends, extending the threat to even younger and more vulnerable victims.8 Changes to the technological landscape certainly have played a role in the increased vulnerability of our nation’s youth. Children are accessing technology at increasingly younger ages,9 including on smartphones and tablets. In addition, because of societal changes brought about by the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, even children in pre-kindergarten have been required to navigate online, whether for learning or to engage in social interaction via videoconferencing. As a result of our growing technological dependence, younger children may increasingly be at risk. Because there are no geographic boundaries online, sextortion offenders can gain access to and control victims from anywhere in the world, and a single offender can victimize hundreds of victims at a time. A 2017 analysis comparing sextortion offenders with CSAM production offenders found the number of victims ranged from 1 to 250 victims per sextortion offender, whereas the number of victims per CSAM production offender ranged from 1 to 15 victims.
Sextortion Offender Characteristics
In a study specifically examining sextortion, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) determined sextortion offenders typically have one of three main objectives: a) to acquire increasingly more explicit sexual content of a child victim; b) to obtain money or goods from a child victim, or c) to meet a child victim to engage in sexual acts with them.28 Given the prominent sexual themes in most of the demands, it appears sexual gratification – specifically, a sexual interest in children – is the primary motivation for most sextortion offenders.29 It is not uncommon for sextortion offenders to maintain CSAM collections unrelated to images they obtained through sextortion.30 However, sextortion offenders may also possess the same underlying desire for power and control over victims as perpetrators of domestic violence and sexual assault.31,32 Thus, sextortion offenders may demonstrate additional predatory characteristics, including excitement derived from exerting control and humiliating children. The Department or Justice estimates that many sextortion offenders are also engaged in hands-on sexual exploitation of children.