Sexual predators and others partaking in sextortion, a form of blackmail in which sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favors from the victim, have found an easy access point into gaining victims. According to the New York Times, they are meeting them online through multiplayer video games and chat apps, making virtual connections right in their victims’ homes.
Here’s how it works. The predators strike up a conversation and gradually build trust. Often they pose as children, confiding in their victims with false stories of hardship or self-loathing. Their goal is to trick children and adults alike into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves, which they use as blackmail for more imagery, much of it increasingly graphic and violent.
Reports of abuse are emerging with unprecedented frequency around the country, with some perpetrators grooming hundreds and even thousands of victims, according to a review of prosecutions, court records, law enforcement reports and academic studies. Games are a common target, but predators are also finding many victims on social platforms like Instagram and Kik Messenger.
The New York Times reported earlier this year that the tech industry had made only tepid efforts to combat an explosion of child sexual abuse imagery on the internet. The Times has also found that the troubled response extends to the online gaming and chat worlds, where popular and successful companies have created spaces that allow adults and children to interact, despite efforts to create some safeguards.
There are tools to detect previously identified abuse content, but scanning for new images — like those extorted in real time from young gamers — is more difficult. While a handful of products have detection systems in place, there is little incentive under the law to tackle the problem as companies are largely not held responsible for illegal content posted on their websites.
Six years ago, a little over 50 reports of the crimes, commonly known as “sextortion,” were referred to the federally designated clearinghouse in suburban Washington that tracks online child sexual abuse. Last year, the center received over 1,500. And the authorities believe that the vast majority of sextortion cases are never reported.
There are many ways for gamers to meet online. They can use built-in chat features on consoles like Xbox and services like Steam, or connect on sites like Discord and Twitch. The games have become extremely social, and developing relationships with strangers on them is normal.
In many instances, the abusive relationships start in the games themselves. In other cases, adults posing as teenagers move conversations from gaming sites and chat rooms to platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik and Skype, where they can communicate more privately.
After making contact, predators often build on the relationship by sending gifts or gaming currency, such as V-Bucks in Fortnite. Then they begin desensitizing children to sexual terms and imagery before asking them to send naked pictures and videos of their own.
There has been some success in catching perpetrators. In May, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for coercing an 11-year-old girl “into producing child pornography” after meeting her through the online game Clash of Clans. A man in suburban Seattle got a 15-year sentence in 2015 for soliciting explicit imagery from three boys after posing as a teenager while playing Minecraft and League of Legends. An Illinois man received a 15-year sentence in 2017 after threatening to rape two boys in Massachusetts — adding that he would kill one of them — whom he had met over Xbox Live.
Sextortion is a crime. It is the use of sexual exploitation to manipulate others into sending photos, videos, and recordings that are sexual in nature. In the majority of cases, the offenders use any material to ask for sexual favors and money. To carry out the crime of extortion, offenders use guilt, power and private information to coerce their victim to keep sending them what they want.
Prosecutors estimate that actual cases of sextortion fall between 3,000 or 6,500 victims. Most victims do not report this crime because they are ashamed or embarrassed. Even when a victim does report the incident, it can still be difficult for law enforcement to track down the perpetrator.
Extortion/sextortion crimes can be charged as state or federal offenses. This crime is classified as a second-degree felony in Florida, carrying potential consequences of up to 15 years in prison.