Internet enables 'sextortion' of users, experts say

By Rebecca Klingler, Army SHARP OfficeSeptember 30, 2016

Internet enables 'sextortion' of users, experts say
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- "Sextortion" is not a new crime, said one investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. But it is a crime that's become far easier to commit, thanks to the prevalence of and anonymity afforded by mobile devices.

For the second day in a row, Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention professionals from around the Army gathered for the 2016 SHARP Program Improvement Forum. The forum's second day focused, in part, on technology -- both the good and the bad.

Special Agent Gabriel Henson, with NCIS, defined "sextortion" as a form of sexual exploitation and extortion that uses non-physical forms of coercion. For instance, offenders might threaten to release sexual images of a victim in order to extort from them more sexual favors, more sexual images, or money.

Offenders typically use what appears to be "a very simple process" to snare their victims, Henson said, but the execution of the process is actually very complex and meticulously planned.

In a typical sextortion scenario, a victim will meet a stranger online, where the two will initially engage in normal conversation. Eventually, the victim agrees to transmit some form of sexual material to the offender, such as pictures or videos. Once the offender has the sexually explicit material from the victim, the offender will subsequently threaten to publically release that material unless the victim agrees to the offender's follow-on demands.

Due to the potentially embarrassing nature of the material, its release publically, or to family, friends or associates of the victim, could have a devastating impact on the victim's relationships, marriage, or career.

"The victim has to make a decision here ... it's not a simple decision," Henson said. "It's really a life-changing decision in that moment. 'Do I want to risk my family, my career, or sometimes even, my life?'"

Unless the victim reports the offender, it's unlikely the offender's demands will ever stop, Henson said. This is one of the most significant differences between a one-time "Internet scam" and sextortion.

"Right when you think it's over, they hit you up again," Henson said. "It never ends. It never really ends, except if you report it."

SHARP professionals in the audience, who came from Army commands around the world to Washington, D.C., to attend the two-day forum, indicated that they have seen an increase in sextortion cases over the past few years.

Because of the growing trend, some are already educating their Soldiers about sextortion as part of their regular SHARP training.

Prevention is key, Henson said, emphasizing that the victim is never at fault. He likened the situation to a drunk driving incident, where awareness and training may be the best defenses.

"You come to traffic light ... your light turns green. You have every legal and moral and ethical right to go through that light," he said. "But if you take a second to look either way and be aware of your surroundings, you may see the drunk driver swerving and speeding. If he hits you, it's his fault ... you're not at fault for anything. He's going go to jail. But there's no amount of jail time that's going to heal your injuries. You're hurt. You can't take that back."


Despite some of its more troubling applications, the digital age is also ushering in a new era of revolutionary, innovative tools that are proving advantageous in the Army's fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Tim Wansbury, a retired Army colonel who currently serves with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, demonstrated at the forum how the SHARP Program is leveraging the latest technology to develop cutting-edge training and outreach capabilities.

Three laptop-based training applications -- collectively referred to as the ELITE SHARP Trainers -- are in various stages of execution and development by the Army Research Laboratory and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, under the direction of the Headquarters Department of the Army SHARP Program.

The applications are designed to give command teams, SHARP professionals, and Soldiers the information, understanding, and practical experiences they need to properly respond to and prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault -- but without the time constraints and tedium of large-group slideshow-driven lectures.

Each of these three trainers follow the same methodology, with up-front instruction that provides participants with a common knowledge base, animated vignettes that compare "proper" and "improper" responses, and practice exercises that enable participants to apply their knowledge.

Each trainer, however, has a different audience and purpose.

The "Command Team Trainer," for instance, teaches command teams how to respond to SHARP-related incidents within their organization. The SHARP "Prevention and Outreach Simulation Trainer" focuses on teaching prevention techniques to SHARP professionals. Finally, the "Retaliation and Bystander Intervention Trainer" addresses retaliation, bystander intervention, and specific issues surrounding male victimization.

Wansbury said his own experiences in the Army have given him a unique perspective regarding the ELITE SHARP Trainer projects.

"I'm an old guy. We didn't have SARCS and VAs and all the SHARP professionals to help" when he had to support a sexual assault or sexual harassment victim, he said. "The person who helped me was the contract lawyer, 2,000 miles away ... So, I'm pretty passionate about trying to give command teams the tools they need so they will be able to handle these kinds of situations."

The only ELITE application released to date, the CTT, has shown promising results so far. Command team confidence has been shown to increase after CTT training is conducted, and knowledge of SHARP procedures increased 13 percent, according to pre- and post-tests.

The SHARP POST application is scheduled to begin testing in November 2016, with initial distribution tentatively scheduled for February 2017. The Retaliation and Bystander Intervention Trainer is expected to be ready for release a year later, in February 2018.

While the CTT is already released, the Army SHARP program is working now to develop new practice scenarios to keep the training fresh, relevant, and engaging. Additionally, audience-specific content is being considered to address the needs of unique groups, such as junior leaders, first responders, National Guardsmen, and civilian employees.

Next month kicks off a 12-month project that will leverage the "New Dimensions in Testimony" technology created for the Shoah Foundation. The project enables viewers to "interact" with recordings of World War II Holocaust survivors, including the ability to ask questions and receive relevant answers in real-time.

The vision is that the same technology that allows viewers to interact with Holocaust survivors could also be used to let viewers interact with survivors of sexual assault. Those survivors, say SHARP professionals, have much to teach about the effects of sexual assault, and the necessity of a proper, professional, compassionate response.

Related Links:

Army News Service

Army SHARP program

Sign up for ARNEWS to your inbox

ARNEWS Archives