The dangers of sextortion can be deadly

Image created by Hannah Levenson

Image created by Hannah Levenson

Riley Lavine and Hannah Levenson

On Saturday Nov. 19, 17-year-old Streetsboro High School senior, James Woods, committed suicide after being sextorted. Streetsboro High School released a statement stating that Woods was not the only victim of sextortion in their school district.

Sextortion is a crime where a person poses as someone else, normally a teenager, and communicates with young people online. These extortionists will either obtain nude images from computer hacking or gaining the person’s trust to send images. The person then threatens to send out that teenagers nude or sexual images in exchange for money or sexual favors. Many extortionists are not local and are based in other countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Ukraine, Morocco and the Ivory Coast. The FBI states that the people who are committing these crimes study the behaviors of teenagers and become experts at contacting and gaining trust in order to build these relationships.

Sextortionists often use a specific method on their victims. First, the extortionists will seek out their victims on a social media platform such as Instagram or Snapchat, beginning with a friendly chit-chat. The extortionist will then suggest moving into a “private” platform such as WhatsApp, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, or Skype. Then, the sextortionist turns the conversation in a sexually suggestive direction—and they may even send you what appear to be intimate photos or videos of themselves (but these images are often fake or pre-recorded).

In return, the sextortionist invites you to send intimate images of your own. Once you do, the conversation turns threatening. The sextortionist will then demand payment through familiar channels like Bitcoin, Venmo, PayPal, Cash App or even gift cards.

Although it is rare that these criminals meet up with the person they are contacting, there are harmful effects on the victims from the online harassment. Many young people do not know who to turn to when they are caught up in these situations, this leaves teenagers feeling lonely, helpless, embarrassed and anxious. And in unfortunate cases like Woods’, these feelings can lead to self-harm or death.

17-year-old Ryan Last from San Jose, California also committed suicide after sextortion earlier this February. After the extortionist continued to demand money from Last’s parents, he thought he had no choice but to protect his family.

Sextortion is increasingly becoming a danger to teenagers all over the country, and Woods’ parents believe it is something that teens and parents should be educated about. With the permission of Woods’ parents, the Streetsboro Police Department released a statement on the dangers of sextortion on Facebook, which was also reshared by the Solon Police Department.

Solon High School (SHS), led by principal Erin Short, is also aware of these dangers.

“As a school, we need to continue to send a strong message about the dangers of sending images through social media and texting,” Short said. “Additionally, we need to continue to remind students to be more careful about trusting individuals they have never met and do not truly know on digital platforms.”

Although sextortionists use advanced methods of communication and are able to disguise themselves easily, there are several ways to prevent this from happening. One way to ensure cybersafety is to set all social media platforms to private and not communicate with anyone online when in a vulnerable state.

SHS guidance counselor Ann Trocchio states that these people know what to say and what to do to get teenagers to believe in them.

“You are not dumb if you get into one of these traps, they know the tactics that are needed to play a mental game,” Trocchio said. “Unfortunately you are just in that age where you are still developing self esteem, confidence, feeling good about yourself, and that’s why you are a target.”

Anyone can become a victim of sextortion, but the risks increase in teenagers, African and Native Americans, LGBTQI+ Individuals, and in women. SHS social worker Adriana Ripma explained that extortionists pick on people who are vulnerable.

“[Victims of extortion] may not have that many friends in the school or maybe there’s some issues at home with their families,” Ripma said. “So being aware of certain things that they do such as asking the right questions or offering certain things, it’s important to know it’s too good to be true and that it is also hard to recognize those sorts of things when you are vulnerable and those predators know that.”

Sometimes teenagers do not know about these preventative measures ahead of time, so it is important to know what steps to take if this does happen. Although the first instinct would be to immediately delete the messages and images, preserving the evidence and gathering as much information on the sextortionist is the first step to solving this problem.

While the idea of these images being exposed to family, friends and possibly strangers is horrifying, victims should not respond to the sextortionist and give into their demands. Victims should block the account and alert the authorities as soon as possible.

If you are not ready to talk to your parents or a counselor, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center provides free confidential support for victims and does not have to make a report if they do not know your full name or personal identification details.

Furthermore, the resources students have at school such as guidance counselors, teachers, social workers and administrators are a useful tool for students to turn to.

“Students should never share compromising photos of themselves,” Short said. “However, if they do find themselves in this situation, I want our students to know we can help them, that they are not alone, that we are here to support them.”

If you are a victim of sextortion or other abuse, there are online resources you can go to.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line
Text 741741

Cuyahoga County Suicide Prevention, Mental Health Crisis, Information and Referral Hotline

24-hour Child Abuse Hotline–Child abuse, neglect, or exploitation – Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services
216-696-KIDS (5437)

Cleveland Rape Crisis Center
24-Hour Hotline: 216-619-6192