As any informed parent knows, the Internet holds many dangers for children. The sexual predator who once would have prowled schoolyards is now far more likely to spend his (or, albeit far less often, her) time online, posing as a teen or preteen while trolling for victims.
In one common scheme known as sexual extortion (or sextortion”), the perpetrator asks for the victim to send sexually revealing photographs of him or herself. Thinking they are chatting with the young man or attractive girl whose image accompanies their profile (or, in the case of some especially devious perpetrators, their own real-life boyfriend or girlfriend), the victim agrees.
Only then does the perpetrator reveal his true identity and threaten to publish the photos on the Internet unless the victim either provides additional photos or consents to meeting the perpetrator in person for sex. Fearing parental disapproval and damage to their reputations, many comply and suffer in silence. Despite its remote and relatively high tech nature, sextortion is a form of sexual violence, with children as young as 13 or 14 its most frequent victims.
Key findings in a 2016 Brookings Institution study include:
‒ Sextortion is inadequately studied
– Sextortion is underreported and almost certainly more common than existing statistics indicate
‒ While nearly all perpetrators are adult men, young boys are frequent victims
– The sentences imposed in successful federal prosecutions, whether predicated on the hacking that enables the scheme to proceed or upon possession of child pornography, vary widely
‒ Once successful, most predators continue to stalk the same victim, who typically lives in a constant state of fear and anxiety
The FBI devotes considerable resources to investigating sextortion cases. The Bureau considers these crimes to be among the most serious of all Internet threats. In one such case, over several years 26-year-old pharmacy student Lucas Michael Chandler, posing as a 15-year-old boy, convinced an estimated 350 teenage girls in several countries to provide topless or otherwise revealing photos.
On the state level, prosecutors are often faced with the difficult problem of proving all of the necessary elements of extortion. Prior to 2018, California’s extortion law required that the offender is motivated by the desire to obtain “property or other consideration”. Most traditional extortion cases satisfied this requirement. However, it was not clear that the compromising photos or sex acts demanded by the predator were “consideration” within the meaning of the law. Because criminal laws are interpreted narrowly by the courts, many California District Attorneys were reluctant to charge extortionists under the existing statute.
To address this situation, California Senate Bill 500 was signed into law in October 2017 and became effective on January 1, 2018. The Bill did not per se recognize a separate crime of sexual extortion per se, but it did expand the definition of “consideration” to include both “sexual conduct” and “an image of an intimate body part.”
Extortion is a felony punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Even an unsuccessful sextortion attempt may be prosecuted as an attempted extortion, which may be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor.