Why It Is So Hard to Catch the People Blackmailing Men with Webcam Sex Videos

We spoke to an expert about the recent trend of online 'sextortion' cases involving young men.

Feb 16 2016, 4:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Andy Smith

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In light of the recent spate of sextortion cases that have been occurring in which men are convinced by catfish accounts to get on Skype, perform sexual acts, and are then extorted for money, we spoke to a legal expert to figure out what the nuances are inhibiting the scammers involved from being brought to justice. In a recent article on VICE, a male victim, Taylor Cooper, thought it pointless to report what had happened to him because he feared law enforcement would be useless. He suspected the person extorting him was in a different country. However, he was willing to go on the record with his full name to help support other potential victims and warn others who could potentially become victims.

Since that article, both Cooper and VICE have had several fellow victims of similar sextortion cases come forward. According to Dr. Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami professor of law who specializes in online sexual harassment, speaking out about this issue in the way Cooper did is crucial because law enforcement surrounding these kinds of crimes is very complex, considering that the laws of several different countries can be involved.

VICE: From a legal perspective, can you explain what the challenges are with sextortion cases? With those I've looked into, it appears as if we're talking about criminals and victims who live in different countries.
The term sextortion is a made-up term, so it doesn't actually refer to a specific type of crime. The crime is extortion, and that can be very broadly defined as threatening somebody to do something if he or she doesn't give something to you. The laws about that will vary from state to state, nation to nation. It's obviously illegal in Canada, illegal in the United States—it's illegal in a lot of places. But the problem is it does create issues if you're talking about someone who's out of the jurisdiction that the victim is in... It's a peculiar situation where every country has its own set of laws, and the internet has made it possible for us to potentially do terrible things to each other. We have to figure out whose laws actually apply in this situation, and there's no easy answer.

Extortion is commonly recognized by most nations as being a problem, so it's probably a crime no matter where you are. But there's still a question whether the effects of the harm were felt in this country, or in this other country.

When was the first time you heard of extortion involving webcam sex videos of men—of this specific scam?
This particular phenomena of men being targeted, as you're talking about, is fairly recent. You can probably go back pretty far to see plenty of examples of attempts to blackmail or extort public figures using sex because that was really the easiest way to do it: compromising photographs, allegations of an affair... However, this particular form of it, involving catfishing that seems to be targeting men, is probably fairly recent, and it is a little bit different from the kind of behavior I spend more of my time thinking about, which is people within a relationship who exchange sexual material, and then one of them decides that he or she is going to disclose that publicly.

This is quite different because these are two people who don't even know each other; it might not even be a woman on the other end. It seems to be a very calculated attempt to exploit people's willingness to share intimate photos without much expectation of privacy. It's a little bit different in some ways, but in terms of the effects it can have on the victims, it's very similar because people are contemplating what the fallout of these photos will be when they're sent to family or employers. That's a very scary thing.

If someone was to report a sextortion situation like the one described in my last interview with a victim, what would be the legal process that would follow?
One of your options would be to go to the police. In the US at least, every state has an extortion law, and there are federal extortion laws as well. Potentially, you could go to the federal—to the FBI—or to state police. The problem is that law enforcement does not tend to be particularly good at understanding technology and the kinds of conduct that technology will allow to happen. That isn't to say there aren't some excellent departments... but generally, you're going to need somebody who understands technology, the platform that you're telling him or her about. He or she is going to need to understand that sextortion is a real crime because it's the type that doesn't get reported very often (and therefore isn't investigated often).

At the same time, you have to understand that you may face negativity and possible moral judgment from law enforcement who might suggest that this is in some way [the victim's] fault. You have to balance whether you're willing to go through that process... It's even more difficult if you actually have to show the pictures to the officer who may not be sympathetic about it. Nothing may happen; it depends on the officer.

Say someone is extorting using these methods from another country—such as Ivory Coast, Africa, where the victim I spoke to was asked to send money. How would that work legally?
This is very complicated. First, you have to find out where the person actually is because even if there is some indication that the server is located in Africa, it's not guaranteed that's where the person actually is. Potentially, you could have more locations than that: You could have a person in Russia using a server located in Africa, and it's coming from a victim that is in Canada. There you've got potentially three different countries with three different types of laws that could be brought to bear.

The first debate would be over whose law should apply, and the Canadian citizen is probably going to want Canada's law to apply. But then there would have to be some way to work out what country's law should apply if they come into conflict with each other. One [nation] could say, "That's not a crime in my country, so you can't punish my citizen for doing that." It's an open question as to who would get jurisdiction.

Do you know of any cases where people have been found guilty of crimes specifically of this nature?
I have seen cases where people have been found guilty of extortion, but I can't recall one that involved international jurisdiction. That would be very instructive here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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