Tackling the Rising Incidence of Financial Sexual Extortion


The fight against financial sexual extortion requires collaboration, technological awareness, legislative support, adaptive strategies, and a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced to protect victims and prevent harm.

On 31 January 2024 CEOs from social media giants Meta (the parent company of Facebook and Instagram), X, Snapchat, Discord, and TikTok faced a US Senate Committee hearing where they were questioned over their platforms’ efforts to protect young people from online abuse, including sexual exploitation. As the CEOs testified in front of the US Senate, PA Consulting (PA) held a cross-sector innovation forum co-facilitated with Plexal to explore some of the challenges and opportunities for tackling and preventing the alarming, growing abuse trend of financially motivated sexual extortion.

The forum included opening addresses from sector experts Iain Drennan (WeProtect Global Alliance), Simon Bailey (representing Child Rescue Coalition), Ian Critchley QPM (National Police Chiefs’ Council), Julie Dawson (Yoti), and Saj Huq (Plexal), who set out the challenges faced in today’s digital age, and observations on the current response to FSE.

Attendees then took part in facilitated workshops to explore a typical ‘victim-perpetrator pathway’, and an open group discussion to consider challenges and opportunities for early intervention.

The workshop discussions focussed primarily around three areas for intervention, within which specific challenges and opportunities were identified:

  1. PREVENT – how to prevent people from engaging in FSE (stopping the problem at source)
  2. PROTECT – how to protect individuals from FSE (building high levels of defence and resilience)
  3. PURSUE – how to pursue offenders through prosecution and disruption (relentless disruption and targeted action) The group discussion emphasised the shift required from cure to prevention, and how the ecosystem can maximise the use of innovation from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Financial sexual extortion and coercion of children

Statistics from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) point to an 87% volume increase in child sexual abuse material since 2019. A significant increase in new tactics by perpetrators, including through FSE, are a large part of this growth. This category of harm bridges crime types and techniques, and therefore requires a collective, cross-threat whole-system response to reduce the disastrous impact on vulnerable children.

Reported cases of the coercion, extortion, or blackmail of a child by technological means, and using sexual images and/or videos depicting that child for the purposes of financial gain, have increased dramatically in the past year. In 2022, NCMEC received over 10,000 reports of financial sexual extortion of a child (compared to 139 reports in 2021), and the FBI issued a public safety alert about an ‘explosion’ of financial sexual extortion and coercion schemes targeting children and teens.

Children are particularly vulnerable; in a survey of over 1,500 victim-survivors, 46% were children. Financially motivated sexual extortion and coercion is highly traumatic for victims and has led to tens of children taking their own lives.

These criminals deceive and extort children into producing and sharing ‘self-generated’ sexual content for monetary gain. Many extorters pose as young girls online and predominantly approach boys aged between 15-17 years via social media, proposing the exchange of sexually explicit imagery. Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) data also suggests that boys are more likely to be targeted, although the organisation cautions that they have identified female victim-survivors too. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P) analysis of 6,500+ public posts by sexual extortion victim-survivors in 2022 revealed many extorters use similar strategies. Once sexually explicit imagery is sent, the extorter threatens to send the imagery to the child’s friends and family, blackmailing them for money. They make threats appear credible by sending screenshots of the child’s social media contacts.

The landscape of sexual extortion has undergone a significant transformation

The landscape of sexual extortion has undergone a significant transformation in recent years. Historically, sexual gratification has been identified as the primary motive for sexual extortion. However, as seen with the rising cases of FSE over the last two years, there has been a significant emergence of financially motivated perpetrators committing this crime type.

Note: Financial incentives are still the minority motive in known cases of sexual extortion against children. During the opening remarks from the expert panel, several key themes emerged regarding the rise in FSE:

  • Starting from the victim’s perspective: To combat FSE effectively, it is crucial to comprehend the victim’s world and recognise FSE as a pervasive societal issue. Particularly concerning is the blurred line between online and real-world experiences, especially for children. The impact and trauma experienced by victims of FSE cannot be overstated. The unique challenges faced by those abused online are only now becoming clearer. Ensuring appropriate support and responses for victims and parents reporting incidents is essential.
  • Scale: FSE operates on a massive scale and minimal participation is needed to sustain a successful criminal enterprise. As technology evolves, FSE is expected to become more intricate. Urgent efforts are required to catch up and address this growing issue comprehensively.
  • Prevention and Safety by Design: There is a significant opportunity to safeguard children by embedding Safety by Design and age-appropriate design principles into the development of technologies, whether that be for social media platforms, gaming platforms, or other applications and services used by children. By exploring the creation of a robust safety ecosystem for online child safety and leveraging tangential technologies, emerging threats can be more effectively counted and prevented. Additionally, building victims’ confidence to come forward to talk about their experience as well as normalising conversations around FSE, is paramount to prevention by de-stigmatising the experience of abuse and raising awareness and knowledge of the harm and how to keep safe online.
  • Cross-cutting environment and collaboration: FSE transcends traditional boundaries (fraud and online child sexual exploitation and abuse), necessitating collaboration across various domains. Learning from subject matter experts in fraud prevention and other forms of extortion will ensure best practice solutions and approaches are adopted and implemented, rather than inventing the wheel or starting from scratch. Existing criminal entities don’t operate in a static way as they are constantly evolving their revenue streams and are adept at adapting without needing to form new entities or formations. Collaboration between players already working within the ecosystem is therefore critical to identify opportunities for innovation, develop adaptable and agile technologies that respond to shifting threats, and rapidly scale up effective solutions to tackle the evolving threat posed by these criminal entities.
  • Technologies and tactics used by perpetrators: The varied tactics and methods employed by perpetrators to conduct FSE pose a formidable challenge for law enforcement and investigators. The offense can occur within seconds, particularly in gaming contexts with brief average interaction times, and perpetrators are continuing to shift to encrypted platforms which complicates investigations. Technology facilitates blackmail tactics, often with little regard for the trauma inflicted on victims. Understanding the intricate intersection of technology and FSE is imperative. Perpetrators exploit emerging technologies such as deep fakes, emphasising the need for an AI lens to detect and prevent activities before their full unfolding.

Opportunities for intervention across the victim-perpetrator pathway

A typical victim-perpetrator pathway was used to help frame the workshop discussions, where groups stepped through each stage of the pathway, discussing both challenges and opportunities for intervention. This pathway was set in the context that many cases of FSE initially begin on a platform which is public (where a target is identified and there is initial engagement), and then progresses onto an intermediate private platform (where the threat escalates through grooming, image exchange, and initial blackmail), before moving onto the financial platform (where there is value exchange).

Whilst opportunities for intervention and possible solutions were identified during the discussion, it should be noted that there is a possibility that some of these may already be in use by an organisation. The intention is not to duplicate effort, but instead, ensure action is being taken across the ecosystem and to maximise opportunities for earlier upstream intervention.

Challenges identified that will need to be overcome:

Awareness with potential victims

Increased peer pressure in society to share nude images, and it becoming ‘the norm’ for teenagers, without fully realising the potential risks

  • Difficulty “getting through” to minors in their language and a tendency for a lack of trust in adults
  • Education and awareness interventions happening too late in the pathway
  • Limited public awareness, including awareness of parents and carers.

Ease of committing the offence

Ability to easily identify a child’s profile on the public platforms

  • Anonymity of predators who typically work across multiple platforms, often moving victims into private (typically end-to-end encrypted) environments
  • Increased abuse of AI which significantly impacts ease and scale (e.g. increased use of deep fakes negating the need for an actual image to be sent)
  • Grooming can be effective even after a few minutes.

Complexity and existing approaches

  • Issue is “full stack”, involving both hardware and software/platforms
  • Lack of visibility of existing interventions
  • Lack of coordination between platforms and lack of detection mechanisms.


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