How to avoid “sextortion”: Pinal officials to offer tips at documentary screening this weekend

Jeremy Beren

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Screenshot courtesy of Pinal County Attorney's Office

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Queen Creek, Ariz.) — In conjunction with the Queen Creek Police Department (QCPD), the Pinal County Attorney's Office (PCAO) is hosting a first-of-its-kind film showing at the Queen Creek Performing Arts Center on Sept. 17.

"Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic" is a new documentary film directed by Siberian-born filmmaker Maria Demeshkina Peek and produced by her husband Stephen. Debuting nationally on Sept. 15, the film chronicles multiple international cybercrime investigations, specifically those centered on the growing number of online grooming and so-called sextortion incidents.

According to a press release from the FBI's Phoenix field office, sextortion occurs when an adult poses as a minor online to deceive their victim into engaging in explicit activity that is then recorded and used to siphon money from them or their parents' bank accounts.

The Bureau's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, with losses exceeding $13.6 million.

"(County Attorney) Kent Volkmer and I thought it would be a good opportunity, with this film making its debut across the nation, to address an ongoing problem in our communities," Queen Creek Police Chief Randy Brice told NewsBreak via phone. "In seven months, we already have a handful of these cases that are devastating to families. We want to get ahead of that curve."

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Courtesy of Pinal County Attorney's Office

A network of victims

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) figures show a 98 percent increase in "online enticement" reports between 2019 and 2020. Sextortion, which Brice called a "digital twist" on classic extortion, falls under the online enticement umbrella.

Sextortion often begins on social media or in a gaming chatroom, such as those used on PlayStation and Xbox consoles. Using manipulative tactics to gain the victim's trust, the predator — posing as a young girl or someone else age-appropriate — often records the affected teenager in compromising positions before threatening to release the images or videos widely unless they are compensated financially.

Some teenagers have sought out their parents, their pastor, or local law enforcement after they are asked to send a large cash sum or gift cards in exchange for withholding sensitive footage. But the FBI believes that many do not come forward at all out of embarrassment.

Due to this, it is thought that sextortion offenders have up to hundreds of victims around the globe, outside U.S. law enforcement's jurisdiction.

"Disrupting these criminals is difficult ... the best ways to do just that are through awareness, education, and having important discussions with your children about their online safety," FBI Phoenix field office special agent Sean Kaul said via statement.

"Open and available"

Brice said Pinal County authorities have been made aware of sextortion cases involving minors as young as 13- or 14-years old.

"(These victims are) very young kids who are inexperienced and don't really understand what's happening," he said. "They're embarrassed and ashamed to the point where the extortion is not the extent of it. They become so embarrassed that they sometimes self-harm or kill themselves."

"Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic" tracks one such real-life case, interviewing a victim in an international sextortion ring that swept up Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, who committed suicide in 2012 after explicit photos of her leaked online. The 44-year-old Dutch man accused of harassing and bullying the 15-year-old Todd was found guilty in British Columbia last month on charges that included extortion and child pornography.

Brice said his detectives and the PCAO are placing an emphasis on showing up for the community, answering any questions or addressing any concerns during or after the documentary ends.

"We're hoping (with this event) that parents really understand what they can do to keep their kids out of this dangerous situation ... We want to be very open and available," he said.

For more information about the film, visit the official website. The viewing itself is free, but a ticket is required to attend. After the film concludes, attendees can stay for a panel discussion featuring QCPD detectives, PCAO staff attorneys, and the filmmakers themselves.

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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