Sextortion is scarily common, new study finds

Blackmailed and held for ransom on Facebook
Blackmailed and held for ransom on Facebook

Children and women are being manipulated online in a common, scary phenomenon called 'sextortion.'

It's the practice of using personal information -- often photos obtained by illicit means -- to extort victims into providing more sexually explicit photos and videos.

Take Luis Mijangos, a sextortion offender who managed to trick women and teenage girls into downloading malware that would allow him to remotely take control of their computers.

He could turn on their webcams and microphones and spy on them, as well as see everything they typed. Sometimes, he'd pretend to be their boyfriends in order to get them to send him pornographic materials of themselves -- and then he used that to extort them more. It's a vicious cycle.

In all, Mijangos had at least 230 victims, 44 of whom were under the age of 18. He was eventually caught and got six years in prison. He has one year left of his sentence. His story is detailed in one of two new Brookings Institution reports released Wednesday on the topic of sextortion.

"It's a new form of sexual assault because you can do it without being in the person's presence -- and you can do it at scale," said Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes during a webcast discussing his findings.

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He examined 78 recent cases with more than 3,000 victims, in a first-of-its-kind report on the issue.

The victims are overwhelmingly minors (78%), and the offenders tend to have not one, but many victims. The perpetrators are all male.

"This is really a men problem," Wittes said. "Beyond the fact that they're all men, I have not been able to find any common thread."

The adult victims are women, while the child victims are both boys and girls.

Teens are particularly vulnerable, said Wittes, because of the prevalence of "sexting." This creates digital files that, if obtained by the wrong person, can be used against them. They also don't tend to use two-step authentication or have strong passwords.

But whereas revenge porn is often about public humiliation, sextortion victims are privately being controlled. They fear coming forward to law enforcement in case images and content are publicly disclosed by perpetrators.

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"It's the tip of a much, much larger iceberg. We are certain that the data is incomplete .... that the problem is more widespread than we are able to capture," said Wittes. "It's a remarkably common form of sex crime ... These are cases of remote coercion of sex in a fashion that's closer to a sexual assault than it is to anything you would call innocent."

According to his findings, there could be more than 6,000 sextortion victims.

Part of the intention in releasing the reports is to not only raise awareness, but also to propose a federal law to ensure that all perpetrators are charged with at least one crime.

As with other forms of internet harassment like revenge porn, there aren't specific laws against sextortion, meaning there's no uniform sentencing either. State courts, for instance, tend to have weaker laws and fewer resources, which means those cases tend to receive softer sentences or are even turned away.

Wittes notes that while child pornography laws can be extended to sextortion of child victims, adult victims aren't protected as strongly. Crimes often cross state -- and even country -- lines.

"It's the most malicious and sadistic pattern of behavior I've ever come across," said lawyer Carrie Goldberg during the webcast.

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