Police warning: Sextortion for profit on the rise

Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation

The AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) and police from across Australia are joining forces in recognition of National Child Protection Week to warn of a worrying online sextortion trend targeting Australians.

It is the first time the nation’s police agencies have delivered a combined warning about an online child exploitation trend.

Investigators are warning that overseas offenders are increasingly preying on Australian children, particularly teenage males, and coercing them into producing explicit images and then extorting them for money.

Despite the sharp the rise in reports, police suspect the offending is far greater than what has been reported, with many victims yet to come forward to authorities.

Sextortion is a crime that can involve child victims being coerced into sending sexualised images by online offenders, often through the offender pretending to be another young person. An offender then threatens to on-share the content to others unless their demands are met. These demands include more images, sexual favours, and money.

Authorities globally are seeing a significant increase in offshore criminal syndicates targeting teenagers with threats to share their content in exchange for money, gift cards or online gaming credits. If this happens to someone under the age of 18, it is online child sexual abuse.

The coercion and sextortion used by the online offenders can cause significant fear and trauma to victims. It is normal to want to hide what has happened and not talk about it with parents, carers or police. Offenders use this fear to continue to commit crimes. The best protection is to get specialist support as soon as possible. The rise in reports has seen the creation of the online blackmail and sexual extortion response kit to aid victims, along with their parents and guardians.

National Child Protection Week is an initiative led by the National Association for Prevention of Child abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) and is an opportunity for Australian law enforcement including the Australian Federal Police (AFP), New South Wales Police Force (NSWPF), Victoria Police, Queensland Police Service (QPS), Western Australia Police Force (WAPF), South Australia Police, Tasmania Police, Northern Territory Police and ACT Policing to bring attention to crimes that are impacting on children, as well as the joint efforts being undertaken to combat it. This includes the current sextortion threat facing young people.

AFP Detective Superintendent Jayne Crossling from the AFP-led ACCCE said investigators hoped highlighting the trend would encourage children who have become victims to seek help and report the crime to the ACCCE at www.accce.gov.au/report.

"Child victims need to be reassured help is available and by reporting what has happened, they may help us catch an offender and prevent other children being harmed," Detective Superintendent Crossling said.

“Many victims are unwilling to report the abuse and even deny that anything has happened if identified and contacted by law enforcement.

"In addition to the threats and coercion, victims often feel like they have done something wrong and will be punished by parents or carers, or prosecuted by police, if their actions are discovered.

"If your child is or has been a victim, reassure them that it's not their fault and that there is help available through the ACCCE and our partners."

Queensland Police Service Detective Acting Superintendent Stephen Blanchfield of the Child Abuse and Sexual Crime Group said police will use every available resource and investigative action when it comes to child protection, but a whole-of-community response is crucial to protect children.

 “The online sexual exploitation of children continues to pose challenges for our community, with parents and carers playing a crucial role in helping their children adopt safe online practices.  Whilst our specialist officers are online everyday working with the AFP and law enforcement around the world to target perpetrators, prevention remains our best defence in helping keep our children safe online,” Detective Acting Superintendent Blanchfield said.

 “Supervision and communication are key to prevention.  We encourage parents and guardians to speak with their children about what to do if they feel uncomfortable about any behaviour towards them and how they can report that behaviour.”

NSW Police Force Child Abuse & Sex Crimes Squad Commander, Detective Superintendent Jayne Doherty, said the greatest protection we can afford our children is to have open and honest conversations with them.

“We need to create a non-judgemental space with our children to talk about their online activity, so that parents and carers are aware of their activities.

“We want children to be comfortable to come to their parents and carers and share if they’ve been asked to do something online that is wrong or upsetting, even if they’ve already done it.

“Police will investigate to identify offenders and work closely with our partner agencies and the eSafety Commissioner to take down the images – every time the material is shared and viewed, that child is once again abused,” Detective Superintendent Doherty said.

Victoria Police Detective Acting Inspector Carla McIntyre, Victoria Joint Anti Child Exploitation Team said parents often feel overwhelmed when it comes to their child’s online activities.

“There can often be a notion of ‘this won’t happen to my child’, ‘my child can’t/doesn’t know how to do that’ or the certainty that as a parent, you would have noticed the signs if something was wrong. But it’s critical to note that if your child is online they are at risk,” Detective Acting Inspector McIntyre said.

Any site, app, or platform with a chat function can be used by online sex offenders, and they can gain the trust or friendship of a child within minutes. Therefore, prevention and awareness are two of the best ways to help keep children safe online. Conversations with children about the risks on line need to be open and honest and children who are victims need to be made to feel supported and understood.”   

Tasmania Police Detective Inspector Craig Joel said: “Sextortion escalates very quickly and can place people in seemingly hopeless positions.  Tasmania Police reassure victims there is always help available and anybody who is subjected to threats to send money or images of themselves should report it at the very earliest opportunity.”

Western Australia Police Force Sex Crime Division Detective Superintendent Gordon Fairman reinforced the need for parents to speak with their children openly and honestly about the challenges and risks associated with the online environment.

“Police are constantly working to identify offenders and protect children, but education and awareness is the best protection that parents and carers can provide,” Detective Superintendent Fairman said.

South Australia Police Detective Superintendent James Blandford, Officer-In-Charge of the Public Protection Branch said; “Our children and young people are our communities’ most precious asset and it is so terribly sad and distressing when we see them make decisions and undertake behaviours which put them in harm’s way.”

“The internet is a source of great social cohesion but its very power can also be utilised by selfish predators and criminals to victimise users. Sextortion is one of those great evils - but can be combatted through education, open conversations and non-judgemental support. Our message to children and young people is that you are not alone, talk to your family, support services or police.

“There are actions that can be taken to help you – as they have helped young people before you.

ACT Policing Sexual Offences & Child Abuse Detective Inspector Callum Hughes wants to assure any victims of this heinous crime, that ACT Policing has members ready to help anybody who may fall victim to this activity.

“Whilst prevention activities through education and awareness are incredibly important, we have the capabilities in place to investigate and address these crimes, including partnerships with industry bodies who can assist us in responding quickly to reports of sextortion.”

TIPS FOR PARENTS AND GUARDIANS:

Some of the AFP's top tips to keep children safe include having the privacy settings of their social media account set to 'friends only' or 'private' to ensure they are not contacted by someone wanting to do them harm, and turning off any location settings that could show where they go to school or where they live.

Parents should also encourage children not to share any personal information with 'friends' they meet online.

MORE INFORMATION:

The AFP and its partners are committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse and the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation is driving a collaborative national approach to combatting child abuse.

The ACCCE brings together specialist expertise and skills in a central hub, supporting investigations into online child sexual exploitation and developing prevention strategies focused on creating a safer online environment.

Members of the public who have information about people involved in child abuse and exploitation are urged to call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or www.accce.gov.au/report. If you know abuse is happening right now or a child is at risk, call police immediately on 000.

Research conducted by the ACCCE in 2020 revealed only about half of parents talked to their children about online safety.

An award-winning podcast launched last year by the ACCCE 'Closing The Net' is working to change that, showcasing that knowledge is power and that our only chance to help prevent this issue is if we bring a 'whole-of-community' response.

The podcast series offers valuable tips and advice on how to keep kids safe online. Listen to the Closing The Net podcast on your favourite streaming platform.

If you or someone you know are impacted by child sexual abuse and online exploitation there are support services available at www.accce.gov.au/support.

Advice and support for parents and carers about how they can help protect children online can be found at www.thinkuknow.org.au, an AFP-led education program designed to prevent online child sexual exploitation.

Note to media:

Use of term 'CHILD ABUSE' MATERIAL NOT 'CHILD PORNOGRAPHY'

The correct legal term is Child Abuse Material – the move to this wording was among amendments to Commonwealth legislation in 2019 to more accurately reflect the gravity of the crimes and the harm inflicted on victims.

Use of the phrase "child pornography" is inaccurate and benefits child sex abusers because it:

  • indicates legitimacy and compliance on the part of the victim and therefore legality on the part of the abuser; and
  • conjures images of children posing in 'provocative' positions, rather than suffering horrific abuse.

Every photograph or video captures an actual situation where a child has been abused.

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