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People seeking companionship or romantic connections online are falling victim to internet predators. There has been a dramatic increase in recent reports claiming that LGBTQ+ individuals are being purposely targeted for malicious online sextortion crimes. These crimes have led to devastating and long-lasting repercussions for victims and their families. As a result, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued a warning in response to complaints about dating sites geared towards LGBTQ+ community members being infiltrated by sextortion perpetrators.[1]

What is Sextortion?

The term sextortion (sexual-extortion) falls under the broader category of sexual exploitation. In many cases, sextortion is a form of blackmail that involves the act of extorting things like money and sexual favors through means of manipulation and coercion. For example, a perpetrator may threaten to reveal or expose personal and sensitive information about the victim to others unless they agree to the perpetrator’s demands.

How are people being victimized?

Despite advancements in societal attitudes towards LGBTQ+ community rights, the world can sadly still be a hostile place. That’s why dating apps geared toward members of the LGBTQ+ community, like Grindr, Feeld, and Her, have become popular.

These sites were designed to provide a safe space for both openly queer and closeted people to meet and make connections with each other without fear of harassment or exposure. Unfortunately, recent reports have indicated that an increasing number of apps and websites marketed toward members of the LGBTQ+ community are being infiltrated by sextortion predators.

Blackmail

A typical sextortion scam begins with a perpetrator creating a fictitious account on a dating app or social media networking site using a fake identity and photos. The perpetrator poses as a potential partner or someone looking to make a connection online and attempts to establish contact with another person under the guise of starting a romantic relationship. This is a process referred to as catfishing.

The perpetrator cultivates the relationship with their target to gain their victim’s trust and make them feel comfortable. The process can last for days, weeks, or even months. After establishing rapport, the perp will send explicit messages, photos, and videos and ask for some in return. Once the target shares their personal images and information, the scammer threatens to release it to the victim’s friends, family, or co-workers, or post it online unless the victim does what they say.

The primary motivations behind these types of romance scams can be financial and sexual. Sextortion predators use various manipulation tactics to not only extort money from victims but also to access sexually explicit photographs and messages, for their own sexual gratification. Recent reports have revealed that minors using the app, despite there being minimum age of use requirements, were targeted specifically by pedophiles hoping to elicit child pornography. In both cases, similar methods of exploitation are used.[2]

The FBI has stated that most victims report that initial interactions with perpetrators are mutual and unsuspicious. However, after a brief period, the extortionist will attempt to transition the interaction away from the app and onto private messaging forums. Without exposing their true identities, these online predators will go to great lengths to convince targets that they are legitimate users of the app.

Scammers often use stolen or fake photographs and may even hire a video model to convince their victims that they are interacting with an authentic person. It is very common for perpetrators to befriend victims on social media to access a list of the victim’s followers which typically include family members, friends, and co-workers.[2]

Why are LGBTQ+ apps being targeted?

Experts suggest that individuals using these dating apps are being specifically targeted by predators for a few different reasons. Given the nature of the apps, which are primarily used to foster romantic connections, online predators have a much greater opportunity to collect private and sexually explicit information from their targets. Additionally, since these apps have been designed for LGBTQ+ community members, predators assume that their targets have an even greater incentive to keep quiet about their victimization and comply with demands.

Because these apps are marketed as a safe space, people who are not openly queer rely on them to make connections with others without fear of exposure. As the thought of public shaming and the potential outing of their sexual orientation or gender identity is so profound, these individuals are more easily subject to victimization.

The Fallout

According to the FBI, the number of these cases has been steadily increasing. Experts speculate that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the emergence of hookup-culture has escalated this trend. As the dating world transitioned largely onto virtual platforms, sextortion predators took advantage of this change.

Last year, the federal agency reportedly received over 16,000 sextortion complaints with financial losses totaling over $8 million.[2] In reality, the repercussions of these crimes extend beyond financial ruin. Sadly, the effects of being targeted and exposed by sextortion predators were overwhelmingly devastating for some victims who felt driven to take their own lives.[1] As a result of the seriousness of these crimes, law enforcement officials have significantly increased their efforts to capture and charge perpetrators.

How to Protect Yourself

It is important to be aware of the potential dangers inherent online in order to prevent yourself and your loved ones from becoming victimized. Dr. Bennett believes that providing our kids and teens with the necessary knowledge and skills to navigate these pitfalls before they arise, is the key to avoiding digital injury. That is why we created the Social Media Readiness Course which is designed to empower families to promote safe and responsible practices while avoiding harmful outcomes online. The internet can be an exciting and helpful tool when we are equipped with the proper skills to use it.

T hanks to CSUCI interns, Mackenzie Morrow and Michael Watson for researching the targeting of LGBTQ+ community members in sextortion scams on popular dating apps and co-authoring this article.

 

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
GetKidsInternetSafe.com

Works Cited

[1] Skiba, K. (2021). Sextortion plaguing LGBTQ+ dating apps. AARP. https://www.aarp.org/money/scams-fraud/info-2021/lgbtq-dating-apps.html

[2] Petkauskas, V. (2021). The shame game: how sextortion scammers prey on victims’ fear. Cybernews. https://cybernews.com/privacy/the-shame-game-how-sextortion-scammers-prey-on-victims-fears/

Photo Credits

Photo By Sharon McCutcheon (https://unsplash.com/photos/MW7ru0BdTFM)

Photo By Tima Miroshnichenko (https://www.pexels.com/photo/a-man-holding-a-letter-lightbox-6266500/)

Photo By Bruno Aguirre (https://unsplash.com/photos/xw_WBtNEqfg)

Mackenzie Morrow
Mackenzie Morrow
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