What is Sextortion? The Crime and Its Impact

Feb 05th, 2018

By Rachel Yehoda, Program Coordinator (Prevention & Education)

In the vast and ever-evolving world of the internet, the cybercrime of “sextortion” happens all too often, and can have a devastating impact on the lives of those who are victims. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) describes sextortion as “a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them with images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.” With this particular type of cybercrime, young individuals are the most common targets—71% of victims involved in sextortion cases are 18 or younger.[ii] Sextortion victims are most often targeted through social media networks, where perpetrators manipulate their victims into sending them sexually explicit content and demanding favors.[iii] Perpetrators often use deception and control in sextortion cases; for example, they may obtain sexually explicit images or videos from the victim by posing as the victim’s significant other online.[iv]

The crime of sextortion is essentially a form of “remote sexual assault,” where perpetrators can exploit their victims from afar, and often have multiple victims.[v] Consider the case of Luis Mijangos, who had upwards of 230 victims. [vi] Mijangos used malware software on victims’ computers to retrieve information, including pictures and videos, and had the ability to control webcams and microphones so he could secretly record his victims.[vii] [viii] By the time Mijangos was arrested for his crimes and sentenced to 6 years in prison, he had done extensive psychological damage to his hundreds of victims.[ix] Highly sophisticated perpetrators like Mijangos are dangerous and deceptive in the way that they manipulate their victims to gain access to a wealth of private information.

In order to fully understand sextortion and protect individuals from becoming victimized, the unique dynamics of this crime need further examination. Unfortunately, minimal research has been done on the topic of sextortion. From what research does exist on the topic, we know that perpetrators are consistently male and that they are often repeat offenders.[x]  The majority of adult victims of sextortion are female, whereas minor victims are more evenly distributed between males and females.[xi]

From a legal protection standpoint, there are no federal or state laws that recognize sextortion as a stand-alone criminal offense.[xii] Instead, perpetrators of sextortion are often charged with crimes such as producing, receiving, and/or distributing child pornography.[xiii] Sextortion cases in Maryland follow a similar charging pattern. A January 2017 statement from the U.S. State’s Attorney’s Office, District of Maryland, stated that federal charges were filed against Kevin Graham Conlon in a sextortion case for “production of child pornography; and for receipt and distribution of child pornography, conspiracy to receive and distribute, and attempting to receive and distribute child pornography.”[xiv] A lack of clear criminal laws that specifically prohibit sextortion means the crime is charged and prosecuted differently from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.[xv] Efforts to remedy this problem are underway in Maryland, where a bill criminalizing sextortion was just introduced.

The negative impacts of sextortion are far-reaching, and we must educate young people about online safety in order to prevent this crime from taking place. For more information on internet safety, check out Stop It Now’s tip sheet on how to keep kids safe on the internet


"What is Sextortion?" Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). https://www.fbi.gov/video-repository/newss-what-is-sextortion/view.

[ii] Wittes, B., C. Poplin, Q. Jurecic, and C. Spera. "Report: Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault." Brookings. Accessed May 11, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/research/sextortion-cybersecurity-teenagers-and-remote-sexual-assault/#footnote-67.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Complaint at 10, United States v. Mijangos, No. 10-743-GHK (C.D. Cal. June 17, 2010).

[vii] Indictment at 3, United States v. Mijangos, No. 10-743-GHK (C.D. Cal. July 8, 2010).

[viii] Affidavit for Search Warrant at 9, United States v. Mijangos, No. 10-743-GHK (C.D. Cal. Mar,. 2010).

[ix] See Judgment, United States v. Mijangos, No. 10-743-GHK (C.D. Cal. Sept. 16, 2011).

[x] Wittes, B., C. Poplin, Q. Jurecic, and C. Spera. "Report: Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault." Brookings. Accessed May 11, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/research/sextortion-cybersecurity-teenagers-and-remote-sexual-assault/#footnote-67.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] "Cockeysville Man Facing Federal Charges for Production and Distribution of Child Pornography in Sextortion Case." United States Department of Justice, U.S Attorney’s Office, District of Maryland. January 10, 2017. https://www.justice.gov/usao-md/pr/cockeysville-man-facing-federal-charges-production-and-distribution-child-pornography.

[xv] Wittes, B., C. Poplin, Q. Jurecic, and C. Spera. "Report: Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault." Brookings. Accessed May 11, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/research/sextortion-cybersecurity-teenagers-and-remote-sexual-assault/#footnote-67.

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