Picture this—you’ve entered the world of online dating. Maybe you’re using websites or matchmaking apps in order to find love forever or just for a little while. You connect with a new person who wants to move off-app to have a more personal conversation. They send you an intimate photo of themselves to escalate the conversation and ask that you return the gesture in kind. Not wanting to be rude, you oblige, and reply with an intimate photo of yourself. That’s when the trap snaps shut. All at once, the tone of the conversation turns completely over, and the person on the other end of the connection is suddenly demanding money in exchange for not publicizing your intimate photo. You’ve just become the victim of a sextortion scam. It’s a growing phenomenon that many private citizens may not be aware of. From our private investigators, here is the full run-down of sextortion scams and how a private investigator may be able to help.

People who fell in love with their long-term partner prior to the age of the internet will likely have difficulty understanding how ordinary individuals can fall victim to sextortion scams and other scams of a similar ilk. The truth is that anyone can fall victim to a scam like this, and that’s why it’s so important to know the signs of a scam like this and what users can do to protect themselves.

Sextortion scams typically are designed like the hypothetical one mentioned above in which victims are targeted via some sort of online dating site or social media platform, groomed by the perpetrator, then manipulated into trading intimate photos with the perpetrator—only to be extorted for money in exchange for those photos not being sent to their friends, family, or being published on the internet. According to the FBI, there were over 18,000 sextortion complaints in 2021 alone, with financial losses of over $13 million—not just with intimate photos of adults, but also with the use of child exploitation materials in order to make the target pay up.

It’s not just adults in relationships who are vulnerable to sextortion scams, but teenagers as well—particularly adolescent boys. Even though the latest generation has grown up with digital literacy as a part of their education, they can still fall victim to the same sort of scams as adults in their sixties and beyond. Because their brains are still developing at this age, many teenagers are unable to see beyond the horizon of such a horrific event and give themselves the comfort that this too shall pass. With this limited perspective, it’s not uncommon for the circumstances of the case to become tragic. A 17-year-old boy named Ryan Last came into the public eye this past February after he became the target of a sextortion scam in which he believed he was corresponding with a girl his age. Just hours after the first message was exchanged between Ryan and the scammer, Ryan was extorted for $150 that he was forced to draw from his college fund. After the first payment was made, the scammer demanded additional funds. Believing that he had nowhere to turn, Ryan made the tragic decision to take his own life to spare himself and his family the embarrassment of the situation.

All forms of sextortion scams are popular amongst cyber criminals because the internal and external pressure on the victims almost always leads to a payout for the perpetrator(s). In order to minimize the threat of exposure, victims are almost always willing to part with whatever amount they believe will initially satisfy the scammer, whether it be the full amount demanded, or a negotiated amount within the victim’s ability to pay. However, another hallmark of these sextortion scams is that once the first payment has cleared, the scammers will almost always come back asking for more. With the victim’s intimate photo in their possession, they are free to make whatever demands they believe they can extract. They threaten to publish the photos if the victim attempts to block or sever all connection to the scammer, placing the victim in a never-ending hamster wheel of extortion until the scammer stops contact or the photos are made public.

What is disturbing about the 18,000 cases of sextortion reported to the FBI in 2021 is that it may not be an accurate representation of how pervasive the problem is in the United States. The FBI has reported that the majority of sextortion scams originate in Africa or Southeast Asia, but the data is, due to its nature, incomplete. While every investigation presents its own series of unique problems, sextortion scams are particularly tricky because they often go unreported. Its very common for victims of sextortion scams to be far too embarrassed to report the crime to law enforcement, especially since many local law enforcement agencies will be unequipped to handle the circumstances or even search for the perpetrator.

Sextortion scams are typically “all-business,” as to say that they are simply cyber-criminals targeting strangers across the globe for financial gain. However, sextortion scams can also be perpetrated for more personal reasons, sometimes between intimate partners, or sometimes even between casual acquaintances. There may be a financial demand, but more commonly, the demands are of a more interpersonal nature. Intimate pictures may be used as leverage between friends who are feuding over a third-party, in divorce proceedings, or between former intimate partners who feel entitled to some sort of catharsis for their heartache.

When victims of sextortion scams do make the decision to report the scam to their local law enforcement, it’s not uncommon for authorities to abstain from involvement, either because they don’t believe they have the jurisdiction, or because they don’t believe they have legal cause to investigate. This leaves the victims feeling isolated and beyond help, but that is not always the case. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the sextortion scam, a private investigator may be the ideal professional to unravel the scheme one text at a time.

Not all private investigation firms will be equipped to deal with the scale of international sextortion scams. In cases where the perpetrator is on another continent, very serious cyber intelligence technology will be necessary for locating the scammer and creating leverage to stop the extortion. However, when the sextortion occurs between two people in the same jurisdiction, there are private investigators who will have the tools to get to the bottom of the matter for victims.

Private investigators are like law enforcement in the sense that they have similar skillsets, experience, and bodies of knowledge that can lead to solutions. However, there are a few factors that set private investigators apart from law enforcement and make them better suited to investigate sextortion scams.

Private investigators are typically autonomous in their work, meaning that they can follow leads anywhere without running into a wall of bureaucratic red tape in their investigation.

Private investigators generally have a much smaller caseload than that of local and federal law enforcement. While a local police investigator may be carrying a caseload of 20-30 cases, private investigators usually handle between 4-10 cases at a time. This means each case gets the attention it deserves.

Private investigators do not have powers of arrest, therefore witnesses or suspects in any given crime may be more likely to engage with them if they know they cannot be legally detained for any reason.

Should the results of the investigation lead to any legal action, the evidence and testimony of private investigators can stand up to a higher degree of scrutiny in a court of law or civil court, as they are independent third parties with no stake in the outcome of the proceedings.

Even if they do not have the particular tools to investigate sextortion scams, private investigators can also partner with cyber experts who may have the software necessary to track communications between scammers and their victims to develop strategies for pursuing action against the scammer(s).

If you or someone you love has become the target of a sextortion scam, it is in your best interest to report it to your nearest law enforcement agency, who can then advise you on what the next steps are in ending the harassment. While the act of reporting can be inherently embarrassing, it may go a long way to stopping the scammer from targeting another innocent person or family.

If you are in need of the due-diligence and fact-finding that come with the services of a licensed private investigator to unravel a sextortion scam in your own life, please reach out to Lauth Investigations International to find out how we can help you end the cycle of harassment and extortion. We carry a glowing A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau, regularly receive 5-star testimonials from our clients, and were recently named one of the top three private investigators in the greater Indianapolis area.  Call 317-951-1100 for a free quote, or visit us online at www.lauthinveststg.wpengine.com for more information.