Online 'Sextortion' Is on the Rise

Cases of sextortion, a growing online practice in which criminals obtain sexual photos of their victim and then threaten to expose the images if the victim doesn’t send more or comply with other demands, are on the rise according to two lawmakers trying to pass laws against the practice. Louis Turner/Getty

He threatened women from his apartment. And from a burrito joint. He even did it from a Lowe's hardware store. Ryan Vallee of New Hampshire, now 22, first targeted some of his high school classmates when he hacked into teenage girls' email and social media accounts to steal naked photos of them, then threatened to post the photos online unless they sent him more sexual images.

After he broke into the Facebook and Gmail accounts of one teen in 2012 and stole sexually explicit photos, Vallee texted her, "If you don't want me to set that as your profile picture on Facebook take your bra off…. You have 15 minutes…. I hacked you once I can hack you again."

Vallee hacked the accounts of eight other women over the next year. What he did is known as sextortion, a growing online practice in which criminals obtain sexual photos of their victim and then threaten to expose the images if the victim doesn't send more or comply with other demands. "It's blackmail, but instead of the reward being financial, it's a sex act," says Brooklyn lawyer Carrie Goldberg, who regularly represents sextortion victims.

When Vallee pleaded guilty in late August, it was for computer fraud and identity theft, since sextortion is not currently listed as a specific offense. That's an oversight two U.S. congresswomen are trying to change with the Interstate Sextortion Prevention Act, a bill they introduced in July as part of a growing push against the manipulative threat. "We are seeing anecdotally that these cases are exploding," says U.S. Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, along with Indiana Republican Representative Susan Brooks. Clark tells Newsweek that a major problem with the lack of a federal law is there's no consistency when criminals are sentenced. Predators who use sextortion to target minors can be charged with child pornography and given long prison sentences, but criminals who use the practice to target adults can get off with much lighter penalties. "The Department of Justice is paying more attention to sextortion, and they are very eager to have a particular federal statute that they can use."

The proposed Sextortion Prevention law is just one example of increased attention to the crime. In April, a Department of Justice report declared sextortion "has become a major threat in recent years." The Brookings Institution produced a detailed report on sextortion in May that investigated 80 cases of it and said, " For the first time in the history of the world, the global connectivity of the Internet means that you don't have to be in the same country as someone to sexually menace that person."

Local law enforcement agents have also noticed an uptick in sextortion. A detective with the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, Christie Hirota, tells Newsweek that reports of sextortion have gone up at least 50 percent since she joined a task force in 2012 combatting crimes against children. Hirota says she's worked with victims as young as 9 years old and describes how predators will groom victims to gain their trust and obtain naked photos. "They'll start having conversations, and at some point the child may send an image to the person, maybe just [her] breast," Hirota says. "The adult will ask for more photographs—they want genitalia—and they say, 'If you don't, I'm going to send it to all your friends.'"

Philip Caputo, 27, used that strategy to force a 13-year-old girl in San Antonio into a sort of virtual sex slavery. The California man first sent the girl sexual photos of another young female and told her she needed to take and send him similar photos, then he threatened, "If you don't send the images, I am going to hurt your family," according to federal court papers.

The girl complied, but Caputo kept pressuring her and demanding she send him increasingly graphic photos and videos of herself almost every day throughout 2013. The girl told authorities that Caputo left her "living in fear." When FBI special agents searched Caputo's email accounts, they found over 1,600 sexually explicit photos of minors. He pleaded guilty to sexual exploitation of a minor and child pornography raps in May and was sentenced to 15 years in prison on November 7.

Vallee, the New Hampshire man, was arrested again in March on suspicion of sextortion while out on bail for the first set of charges. He pleaded guilty to a 31-count indictment this summer and is scheduled to be sentenced in January, with his plea agreement stipulating a sentence of between four and eight years behind bars.

When Vallee began his sextortion plot about five years ago, many police and federal agents weren't aware of sextortion or how to prosecute it, experts say. Goldberg says her first sextortion case was representing a 17-year-old Michigan girl in 2014 who reported that an online predator had pressured her into sending naked photos and was continuing to harass her. When Goldberg contacted federal and local authorities, both told her there was nothing they could do. "No one wanted to touch it," she says. "The fight against [sextortion] has changed so dramatically…. Back then, two and a half years ago, we didn't have the support of law enforcement. But now we do."