Off-shore sextortion scammers are targeting young Kiwis
by Nic George (he/him)
Police are warning of increased off-shore sextortion scams targeting young people in Aotearoa.
Online scammers have been coercing young people, particularly men, into sharing sexually explicit photos of themselves before threatening to post them publicly if the victim fails to pay a ransom.
Detective Sergeant for the New Zealand Police Online Exploitation Across New Zealand (OCEANZ) team Dan Wright said they have noticed an increase in sextortion reports since late 2021.
"Numbers of reported incidents remain significant with an average of 53 reports a month made to Police between December 2022 and June 2023."
The Police conducted a review of reported sextortion incidents which found that between January 2020 and November 2022, they received 618 reports.
According to the review, 54 percent of victims were men under the age of 25.
It also found that 46 per cent of all victims were aged 18-24, and 24 per cent were under the age of 18.
A victim of this scam, who has agreed not to be named, told Debate he "felt like an idiot" when the person he had been messaging turned out to be a scammer demanding payment of $1,000 to prevent the nude images from being made public.
Wright said this is a common feeling among victims.
"Sextortion can have a range of impacts on a victim, from embarrassment to significant harm to their mental health. Many victims experience self-blame."
Wright said this issue is not isolated to Aotearoa and that there has been an international trend.
The victim told Debate he was messaged by what appeared to be a girl his age on Instagram a week before the threat.
At first, the conversation was "fairly mundane" as they got to know each other.
"We chatted for about a day or two. Nothing exciting, but a little bit flirty", he said.
After a few more days of regular conversation, the scammer asked whether they could switch to Snapchat, he told Debate.
NetSafe, a partner with OCEANZ, have warned that switching platforms is a common practice by scammers in their guidelines for spotting sextortion scams.
The victim said it gradually became more explicit until the scammer asked if he "sends nudes".
The victim said he sent one sexually explicit photo and that same night he was added to a group chat with another person he had not spoken to before.
The unknown person sent screenshots of the photo, along with a list of all the accounts the victim followed on Instagram, and threatened to send the images to everyone on the list unless he paid the ransom.
He said he was unable to pay the $1,000 they were demanding, so he began to panic and had to turn to family for help.
“I was stressed out because I couldn’t afford to pay them, so I decided to suck it up and call my mum and tell her what happened.
“That was not a conversation I ever wanted to have with my mother, but she told me to contact the Police.”
His mother also suggested he get ahead of the scammers by reaching out to friends to warn them not to open any images they might receive, he said.
The victim considers himself fortunate as the perpetrators did not follow through on their threat, but he is still unsure whether that will still be the case in the future.
“The good news is I haven’t heard anything from anyone I know about this so I don’t think they have sent them out anywhere, but they still have that photo and could send it out whenever they want.”
He said his experience of reporting it to the Police was reassuring and positive.
"They were very understanding, told me I wasn't the only one, and said I did the right thing by reporting it to them."
While the process of reporting the incident was a positive one, he has not heard anything from the Police regarding the case since the initial call.
Wright said it can be "extremely challenging" to tackle this crime, as most cases involve off-shore offenders.
However, he said they do their best to work with international law enforcement where possible.
"We do make referrals to international law enforcement agencies when we are able. At the end of the day, we want victims to come forward so we can work with them to ensure they get the advice and support they need."
Wright recommends victims should follow the below advice if they find themselves involved in this scam.
Avoid sending any more images or videos - even if they are threatening you.
Remember, once you have complied with their demands nothing is preventing them from targeting you again.
Save all the online chat, and immediately take screenshots. This is important for making a report to the police, we need all the evidence that you can gather.
Block the profile.
Report the content to the platform (e.g. Facebook, Snapchat, PornHub) it is on and request the content is removed.
Make a report to the Police (via 105) or Netsafe to find out what other options are available to you.