‘Sextortion’: Secret price paid to keep X-rated pics private
Jake read the email a few times. It told him he had to transfer $6000 to a nominated bank account or nude photos he'd sent to a woman he'd recently met would be emailed to his boss, parents and friends.
He remembers shutting down his email immediately. Minutes later he checked his computer again. The email was still there. He had two days to pay.
Jake*, 26, immediately called the woman he'd met and flirted with in a city bar a few weeks earlier. They'd chatted, which ended up in a couple of dates and sex.
They'd texted and she'd encouraged Jake to send intimate pictures of himself. She had sent raunchy shots back.
But Jake couldn't understand what the email was about. Was she joking? He kept calling and texting, but the woman didn't respond.
"It was a Wednesday morning about four months ago. I checked my emails quickly before heading to work and, at first, I thought it was a joke or junk mail," Jake, an office manager from Melbourne's CBD, says.
"But then I caught a glimpse of a photo I recognised - a 'dick pic' I'd sent to her. And I felt sick. I kept reading the words over and over but my mind was in panic. I just didn't know what to do next.
"I thought of those pictures being seen by my mum and sister, or the people in my office.
I wouldn't have been able to go to my job anymore. And how would I explain those photos to Mum? No mother should see those kinds of images of her son."
Jake kept calling the woman but she didn't respond. Then later that day he received another email with more images and a reminder to pay as soon as possible.
"I rang my best mate who came over that night and told me he'd read a story about a bloke who'd had a similar experience. He said it was called 'sextortion'. I'd never heard of it," Jake says.
"When I looked online, I realised I wasn't the only guy to be set up. That woman had probably had this scam in mind from the moment she began talking to me. I was probably one of many men receiving those kinds of emails from her. Now I doubt she was who she said she was and the pictures she sent me probably weren't really her either. I got sucked in.
"I couldn't feel angry. I just felt ashamed and embarrassed. I was willing to do anything to make those images disappear, so I paid because I wasn't going to take a risk that she was bluffing. I've heard nothing from her since but I live with the worry that at any time I'll get another email."
Sextortion generally describes online blackmail where a perpetrator threatens to share intimate images unless a ransom is paid. Sometimes the perpetrator has those compromising images and sometimes they don't, but often the threat is convincing enough to make people pay.
In some cases, perpetrators don't want money but instead demand more images or sex.
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner says an individual person can be behind sextortion, as likely in Jake's case, but organised crime gangs can also be involved.
Last year, the National Crime Agency in the UK said the number of sextortion victims had increased threefold in two years, with organised crime groups using fake dating profiles to befriend victims and encourage them to live-stream sex acts.
Victims are often contacted through dating websites and believe they are in a genuine relationship but the sex acts are recorded and used to coerce victims into paying money.
The NCA claims the actual number of people being sextorted is likely to be much higher and at least five suicides in the UK have been linked to this type of crime.
This year, a survey of more than 2000 Australians by RMIT University and Monash University found one in three had been victims of image-based abuse, such as sextortion.
"We've been putting out alerts about sextortion for over a year and we've seen it increasing," eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant says.
"Often a person goes online, meets someone on a dating site or social media site, and a grooming process goes on to build trust.
"Once it crosses into the romantic realm, the scammer convinces the victim to share intimate sexual material - images or video, or they might do a sexy Skype.
"Recently we heard about a case in Queensland where a young man met a woman online and drove to her house to have sex. She gave him a drink, he passed out and woke up with two men holding a knife at his throat. They took his wallet and made him drive to an ATM to take out cash.
"It's a lucrative game and organised gangs can have 300 to 500 potential victims on the go at any time."
Closely aligned with sextortion is revenge porn, where nude or sexual images are shared with a victim's personal or professional network, perhaps to cause hurt and humiliation.
AFL champ Dane Swan found himself at the centre of such a nightmare when an intimate video of him with a woman was posted online without his consent. The former Collingwood star went to police after the video went viral and a 21-year-old woman from Adelaide was charged in relation to distributing the video without Swan's consent in 2018. She was cleared of the offence in June last year.
In 2017, US actor Mischa Barton discovered an ex-boyfriend was trying to sell sexually explicit photos of her. She went to court and her ex was ordered to hand over the videos and images.
Fellow actor Jennifer Lawrence described having nude photos leaked on the internet in 2014 as profoundly "violating". She was one of a number of high-profile names hacked via an image-sharing forum linked to Apple's iCloud.
"I feel like … there's not one person in the world that is not capable of seeing these intimate photos of me. You can just be at a barbecue and somebody can just pull them up on their phone. That was a really impossible thing to process," she told reporters a few years after the incident.
Even the world's richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, isn't immune. He's suing the National Enquirer for last year threatening to publish explicit photos of him unless he stopped investigating how the tabloid obtained his private messages with TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, with whom he was allegedly having an affair at the time.
Dr Nicola Henry is a researcher at RMIT University who has studied image-based abuse. She says one in five Australians have experienced this kind of abuse and it can lead to high levels of psychological distress.
Women and men are equally likely to report being a victim.
"Perpetrators are computer hackers or scammers trying to make money - we know there are hackers who use malware software to gain access to a victim's webcam and personal computer files," Henry says.
"Or they can be an ex-partner who is threatening to share images to prevent a victim from leaving the relationship, or to prevent them pursuing an intervention order.
"Perpetrators may also be sexual deviants who engaged with the victim on an online dating site, shared images and then threatened that if they don't meet and have sex, they will share those images."
Henry says 80 per cent of the people surveyed said they developed depression and/or anxiety and 46 per cent feared for their safety.
"Victims feel vulnerable, fearful and worried that friends, family and colleagues will see those images if they don't do what the perpetrator wants. And they feel they are to blame, so they don't report to police," Henry says.
There are laws in place to tackle sextortion and in November last year, one of the first cases led by the Australian Federal Police was heard in Adelaide Magistrates Court. A 25-year-old foreign national living in Adelaide was accused of threatening to share intimate videos and images of a former partner.
Under the Criminal Code Act 1995, he was charged with one count of "aggravated use of
a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence involving the distribution of private sexual material". He faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
In 2017, a man who extorted almost $160,000 by threatening to release sexually explicit photos of women he met using online dating apps and social media was jailed in Perth. Leigh Abbot met women, dated and earned their trust, and then asked for money.
He told the women he would pay them back but when they refused to give him the cash he wanted, he sent text messages threatening to send sexually explicit photos they had shared with him to their workplace and social media accounts. He also threatened to distribute the pictures via a letter drop in their local area. He was sentenced to 5½ years in jail.
Hayley*, 38, was a victim of sextortion after she was secretly recorded having sex in a restaurant during a night out with mates. The restaurant was owned by one of her friends and after too many drinks, she and the owner had sex in his office. She didn't know she was being filmed.
"I had way too much to drink," says Hayley, an aged care worker in regional Victoria.
"We've been friends for a few years and it just happened but, the next day, I made it clear that it wouldn't happen again.
"I didn't realise he was attracted to me and he thought that night would be the start of something more serious. He kept calling me and asking when we were going out and he kept telling me how much he'd enjoyed the sex. So I blocked his calls. And then the emails started."
Hayley was shocked when she received an email showing images of her and the guy having sex in the restaurant. The grainy close-ups showed Hayley in various sexual positions.
"I called him and asked him what the f--- he was playing at," she says.
"He said it was just a joke but then a few days later when I continued not to take his calls, he texted me asking what my dad and brother would think of my 'performance'. He said how easy it would be to 'accidentally' send the video to them but said the video would 'disappear' if I had sex with him again."
Rather than panicking, Hayley went on the offensive.
"I called him and told him that I had his emails and his 'threat' to send the video to my dad," she says. "I told him that if he sent the video or images to anyone, I'd take his emails and texts straight to the police.
"I also told him I'd show the emails to our friends to see what they thought. I haven't heard from him or seen him since. But it shook me up and I felt dirty and manipulated. I just never expected that kind of thing to happen, but I think it happens more than we realise - people just don't talk about it."
* NAMES AND AGES CHANGED TO PROTECT IDENTITIES
HOW TO SAFEGUARD AGAINST SEXTORTION
■ Report it. Use the online form at esafety.gov.au
■ Remind yourself that it's not your fault. Anyone can be a victim of sextortion.
■ Don't panic. Get support from a trusted friend and get expert counselling if you need it.
■ Don't pay. Don't give money or send more pictures. It will make things worse.
■ Stop all contact with the perpetrator. Block them and ask your friends and family to do the same. Consider temporarily deactivating your social media accounts, but don't delete them
as you will lose evidence.
■ Collect evidence. Keep a record of contact from the perpetrator. Keep demands and threats. Note down any Skype names and IDs, Facebook URLs or money transfer control numbers.
■ Change passwords for social media and online accounts, and review the privacy and security settings of your accounts.
■ Notify the relevant social media platform that was used.
Source: eSafety Commission
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