On Monday September 26, 27-year-old Kelvin Acosta of the Bronx pleaded guilty to one count of sexual exploitation of a child. Acosta used the internet to prey on young girls—one as young as 13. Acosta first made contact with his victims using Facebook, where he tricked them into revealing personal information. Using that information, he hacked his victims’ email accounts and told them he had their sex videos or nude photographs. He then told his teen victims that unless they created pornography for him or gave him money, he would send the images to their families, friends, and schools.
This form of online sexual violence is not unique, but rather typical. It is called “sextortion.” What is unique is that Acosta got caught. Even though his guilty plea is a victory for law enforcement, the sad truth is that the vast majority of sextortion goes unreported.
Sextortion is the fastest-growing crime against children in the United States. But it is not yet a stand-alone crime. As a result, few people report it, and many sextortion cases are not prosecuted.
A national survey conducted by the FBI of more than 1,000 investigators, law enforcement managers, prosecutors, analysts, victim service providers, and US Department of justice grant recipients revealed that 60 percent of those surveyed believe the threat of sextortion is increasing. Cyber-sextortion is on the rise as more and more kids gain access to the Internet. Sextorters like Acosta exploit these digitally savvy children and teenagers by pretending to be peers on social networking sites. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by cyber-sextortion.
Sextortion victims suffer life-long trauma because they never know when and where sexual images of them will turn up, or who has seen them. Victims feel ashamed and embarrassed, and often do not know where or how to seek help, so they keep quiet and suffer in silence. As one adult sextortion victim with whom Legal Momentum is working stated: “It’s affected my life, thinking about having all of these personal videos put on the internet and then connected to my name, and how that would affect my job, my future getting a job, my future finding a home—or doing anything.”
In July, the Thompson Reuters Foundation, Legal Momentum, and Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe launched a report, “A Call to Action: Ending Sextortion in the Digital Age,” that helps both adults and children stay safe on the Internet. (You can download the report and a cyber-safety tip sheet free of charge from our website.)
Last week, to celebrate the report’s launch, Legal Momentum hosted a town hall meeting to educate the public about sextortion, discuss prevention measures and advocate for laws that criminalize sextortion. The panel of experts in the field included: a sextortion victim who was threatened by her landlord; Kevin Gutfleish of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children Intelligence Unit; Lorraine McGowen of the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; New York Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright (D-76th Assembly District); and Penny Venetis, Legal Momentum’s Executive Vice President and Legal Director.
Ms. McGowen, whose firm is working with Legal Momentum on law reform efforts nationally, made clear that it was necessary for laws to be “as uniform as possible so perpetrators are recognized for what they are—sex offenders that should be on the sex offender registry.” FBI’s Kevin Gutfleish added, “of all the crimes against children we investigate, this is certainly the fastest-growing and the most preventable. I would love for every student in America to know that they can be a sextortion victim.”
A fast-growing—and very preventable—crime
Let’s #StopSextortion together.
Legal Momentum is committed to ending cyber-violence against women and girls. This past summer, Legal Momentum worked closely with high school and college students to develop shareable social media materials to raise awareness amont young people about sextortion. The social media campaigns were launched on Facebook, Twitter and other outlets. (You can view an infographic they created at this link.) Legal Momentum is also collaborating with the FBI to educate children around the country about ways to prevent sextortion.
Legal Momentum wants sextortion to be a household word. We want everybody to know what it is, so that the perpetrators can’t hide anymore. We want everybody to support victims so that they can expose perpetrators rather than succumb to their threats. Let’s work together on prevention and awareness!
Here are some of the ways you can help prevent and stop sextortion:
- Educate yourself about sextortion and share that knowledge with your community;
- Talk to your children about online safety;
- Make clear to children and teens that if someone threatens them online, they should report it to you immediately, especially if the threats have a sexual component;
- Call your legislators to ask for their support for anti-sextortion legislation; and
- Report sextortion when it occurs.