As RCMP raise the alarm on sextortion, parents navigate difficult conversations

Early in 2023, the RCMP criminal intelligence division noticed a spike in online sexual extortion reports in New Brunswick.

Digging into the numbers, Maegan White, an RCMP analyst, saw the increase in reports mostly came from victims who were under 22 and male. This rang alarm bells.

"Immediately, we knew that we had to report this one up to senior management because it is a particular crime type that is impacting vulnerable populations," she said.

Exactly why reports of sextortion from teenage boys and young men are increasing is still unknown. And with the perpetrators being likely linked to international organized crime groups, it's a complicated crime to investigate.

So Cpl. Holly Erb, the New Brunswick RCMP sexual violence unit co-ordinator, says the best way to prevent these crimes is to increase awareness and decrease the shame and stigma, and for parents to talk to their kids about it earlier.

Erb has been working with victims of sexual crimes for almost a decade. She says something needs to change to reduce the number of young victims of sextortion.

"Changes I'd like to see are more conversations with children at a younger age about online safety, consent and sexuality," she said in a CBC News exclusive interview.

"I know that that can be a controversial topic for many parents. However, they are exposed to this type of content more and more frequently at a younger age, and I think it's integral that for the safety of our children and the well-being of our communities that we start having those conversations earlier."

What "earlier" means would depend on the family and the dynamic, but she said the instinct to leave the conversation until the child is 16 or older may not protect them from this type of harm.

"You can have age appropriate conversations as young as the child can understand that you're talking to them," she said.

WATCH | Interview with RCMP investigator on sextortion:

These difficult conversations about consent and online safety are not likely to sound the same in every household. Erb said the key is to not think of this issue being addressed in a one-time conversation.

"It's a recurrent conversation that needs to start early and it needs to be repetitive. It needs to be an open conversation,  so children can come and feel comfortable with their parents or a safe adult to have those discussions in case something does happen that makes them feel uncomfortable or uneasy. And then they can always navigate that with someone who's safe."

How does a sextortion scam happen?

Crime analyst White said the New Brunswick RCMP receive about one report of online sexual extortion every day. From January to May this year, RCMP had about 130 sextortion reports. Approximately 30 per cent involve a victim who is under 18 years old, White said, and the majority of those are male.

But Erb said this shows only the sextortion attempts that were reported, and there's a good chance many such incidents aren't taken to police.

She referred to a recent Statistics Canada report that only six per cent of victims of sexual assault report these incidents to police. Sextortion could be affecting young women just as much but goes unreported, Erb said.

White said some of the sextortion instances are linked to international criminal organizations and organized crime.

"It appears that the increase started at the same time across the country," she said.

Maegan White, a crime analys with the New Brunswick RCMP, says the number of sextortion reports spiked in 2023 and have held steady since.
Maegan White, a crime analyst with the New Brunswick RCMP, says the number of sextortion reports spiked in 2023 and have held steady since. (Angela Gilbert/CBC)

The numbers peaked in early 2023 but remained steady into this year.

White said the new cases that involve young victims have similar hallmarks: a person would use social media to reach out to potential victims, then make a connection, establish trust, and get the victim to send them intimate images or make video calls.

The person would then use that content to extort the victim into sending money, under the threat that they would post those images online. Sometimes, the perpetrator wouldn't even need the victim to send them images, as they could use artificial intelligence to create a fake image and extort the victim with it, Erb said.

In Moncton, a teen recently died by suicide after being victimized by sextortion. The same fate befell a teenage boy in Prince Edward Island last year.

Erb said her advice to someone experiencing sextortion, regardless of age, is to not pay any ransom, and to immediately contact police or a trusted person. They should also stop talking to the extortionist, keep records of the conversations that already happened and take screenshots.

Erb said the victim, especially if young, may feel shame, but it's not their fault — an important message to impart.

"Oftentimes they share that they're concerned about the continued backlash that may come from the community, whether that's a school or generally their community as a whole," she said. "And so that internalization of feelings is negatively impacting their mental health.

"I normalize the behaviours and the feelings that they have. I reaffirm that it is not their fault, that they didn't do anything wrong, that they didn't ask for this to happen, and that I'm there to support them through it no matter what choice that they make."

How should a parent react to a disclosure?

Erb said the first piece of advice to a parent whose child may disclose that they shared images or that they're being extorted is to hold back their initial reaction if it's frustration or anger.

"Although those feelings will be overwhelming initially for the parent, they cannot react to those initial feelings, instead support their child, don't shame them for what they did and work through it together," she said.

"They'll have an opportunity to share their feelings with their child when it's not so initial and strong in terms of their reaction."

Resources needed, parents say

This issue is already top of mind for some New Brunswick parents.

Jenna Morton, mother of twin eight-year-old boys and a 13-year old girl, said that with recent news reports on the issue, sextortion feels like something that's getting closer and closer to home.

"It's such a tricky thing to try to explain before it happens," she said. "I think at any age. I think it's one of those things that sneaks up on people that until someone has taken advantage of you, you don't see it coming, even if someone has given you all the tools to prepare for it.

She said she has spoken occasionally with her kids about online predators, even before her daughter got a social media account. She said the family talks about the risks of sharing images, explicit or not, and spelling out what could go wrong in clear language.

"We'd rather they have factual information and know how to ask good questions about it than to rely on social media memes and what their friends might be saying," Morton said.

Jenna Morton, mother of three, says books and discussions with staff at the local sexual health centre helps her safely navigate difficult conversations with her children.
Jenna Morton, mother of three, says books and discussions with staff at the local sexual health centre helps her safely navigate difficult conversations with her children. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

She said this is the same way she talks to her kids about drug addiction, crime, and sex education. Kids see things on TV or hear something in school and have questions, and she takes these questions as a serious opportunity to have honest discussions.

Regardless of how open she is with her kids, Morton said, she will always be their parent, and they may not always come to her for questions. For this reason, she said her family tries to have other positive adult influences in their lives.

For example, a longtime family friend is a nurse, and if one of her children seems to have a question about their bodies or something they may be embarrassed by, she suggests they go to speak to the nurse.

"You can ask me, but I know you're not going to, but you can ask her and it doesn't even have to come back to me. I trust that she's going to give you a proper answer," she said of what she'd tell her kids.

Stacy Ashfield is the mother of two girls, one 14 and one 13. She said she's recently allowed her eldest to get a Snapchat account so she can connect with her teammates.

"She kind of felt like she needed to be on social media so she could speak to her friends and make sure she wasn't missing out on get-togethers for any socializing that they were going to do," Ashfield said. "So we have talked to her a little bit about sending messages and photos. … [We] would like her to know kind of the risks of the apps that she's using."

Ashfield said it's always a challenge to balance being realistic about possible harm and imparting too much fear and confusion in her kids' minds.

"I tend to have fairly open conversations with her about how, I guess just how people might ask you to do things that you're not comfortable with, but you need to be responsible for you," she said. "And that we're always there as her parents to kind of support her and to help her and to deal with anything that does come up. She knows she can talk to us about anything."

It wasn't something that I dealt with when I was a teen. - Stacy Ashfield, mother

But Ashfield was not aware that some scammers use artificial intelligence to generate explicit images without the person ever sending them anything. She said this new piece of information will definitely come up in a conversation with her daughters soon.

Like Morton, Ashfield said it's always difficult to feel equipped to protect her kids from the ever-changing risks of being online.

"I don't really know how equipped I feel to deal with these situations," Ashfield said.

"It wasn't something that I dealt with when I was a teen."

She said she hopes schools are playing some kind of role in teaching kids about online safety and how to spot red flags.

According to the Department of Education website, the personal wellness curriculum has sections about "how a person's identity or personality can be different online," and describes online safety strategies starting in Grade 6.

The curriculum addresses sharing explicit images online and "strategies to keep self and others safe online (luring, protecting personal information, identifying misinformation and disinformation, etc.," in Grade 8.

Ashfield said she wouldn't have a problem with this happening sooner, because kids are going online long before Grade 8.

"If we're giving them technology earlier, we need to give them the education earlier," she said.

Where to get help

Under Canadian law, a judge can order an intimate image that was shared without consent to be taken down by any online platform anywhere in the world," said Johnson.

There are several places where victims of online sextortion can get help or information: