Financial sextortion schemes mostly target teenage boys, largely through Instagram: Report

Teenage boys are the most frequent targets of financial “sextortion” schemes that are often conducted through Instagram and other social media platforms, according to a new report.

The report was released jointly by technology company Thorn and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) on Monday and examined more than 15 million reports made to NCMEC’s CyberTipline from 2020 to 2023.

It found that sextortion is on the rise, with an average of 812 reports of sextortion made per week to NCMEC in the last year.

The report defines sextortion as “threatening to expose sexual images of someone if they don’t yield to demands.” The report found that about two-thirds of all the reports involved demands for money.

The research noted that in the past, sextortion schemes frequently affected girls and included demands that were “sexual or relational in nature.”

However, the latest report found that most victims of financial sextortion are now boys. The report found that 90 percent of victims of financial sextortion were boys between the ages of 14 and 17.

“These reports most often include the use of ‘catfishing’ — in this case, a perpetrator impersonating another young person — to manipulate a teenage boy into sharing sexual images or videos of himself. That perpetrator then threatens to share that imagery with family, friends, or followers unless they are paid,” the report states.

The report found that Instagram was the most common platform listed in financial sextortion data. Facebook and YouTube were also common platforms mentioned as platforms where perpetuators threatened to post content.

Instagram was discussed in 81.3 percent of the threats to disseminate the content online, and was the chosen platform in 60 percent of reports in which the content was ultimately disseminated online.

A Meta spokesperson said in a statement that sextortion “is a horrific crime” and that the company is working to “fight this abuse.”

“As NCMEC has noted, higher reporting numbers are often the result of a platform’s efforts to detect and report abusive content — and we’ve spent years doing both,” the spokesperson wrote. “We’ve already implemented many of the report’s recommendations, and recently announced a range of new features designed to help protect people from sextortion.”

“These include testing a nudity protection feature that will blur nudity in DMs and encourage people to be cautious when sending sensitive images, and sharing signals about sextortion accounts with other tech companies so they can take action too,” they added.

Instagram and Snapchat were also the top two platforms where initial contact was made with victims. Instagram was listed as the platform for initial contact in 45.1 percent of the reports that mention an initial-contact platform while Snapchat was listed 31.6 percent of the time.

A Snapchat spokesperson said in a statement that it is also working to combat sextortion on the app.

“We know that sextortion is a risk teens and adults face across a range of platforms, and have developed tools and resources to help combat it. We have extra safeguards for teens to protect against unwanted contact, and don’t offer public friend lists, which we know can be used to extort people,” the spokesperson wrote.

“We also want to help young people learn the signs of this type of crime, and recently launched in-app resources to raise awareness of how to spot and report it,” they added.

YouTube said in a statement: “These schemes are abhorrent and we’re committed to removing content intended to harm our community. We take this issue very seriously, and have strict policies in place to protect our users from scams and other harmful behaviors, and enforce them rigorously using a combination of human review and machine learning technology.”

Updated June 25 at 7:58 a.m.

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