Sextortion: the invisible threat to Boise State students

Illustration by Sydney Smith

“Bike theft,” one student shouted. “Underage drinking,” shouted another in the front row.

Officer Whipps and his fellow Boise Police Department officers shook their heads. After speaking to a room full of student staff members about crime on Boise State’s campus, the biggest crime had yet to be guessed. How could it be that a room full of Boise State upperclassmen could not guess the biggest threat facing students? 

Residence Life student staff member Sarah Cole sat in the front row, alongside her new coworkers. “It starts with an e,” Whipps said. After a few more guesses, Cole raised her hand: “Extortion?”

According to the Boise Police Department Financial Crime Detective Brad Thorne and Boise State’s BPD and public safety Officer Whipps, who asked that his first name remain anonymous, the most pressing crime students need to worry about is not their bike being stolen or getting caught underage drinking in the dorms; it is falling victim to a form of extortion called “sextortion.”

The Department of Homeland Security defines sextortion as “when a victim is threatened or blackmailed into providing more sexual imagery; the predator threatens to share their nude or sexual images with the public.” When a predator “demands money or gift cards in exchange for keeping their sexual images private,” the act becomes financial sextortion. 

“This past year, our officers were handling at least one case per week relating to sextortion, of someone coming in for advice after the fact or even while it was happening,” Whipps said.

Sextortion scammers target students differently depending on the student’s social media followers, their sex, sexual preference and how active they are on social media. On Boise State’s campus, public safety and BPD have seen students targeted in two main ways: by scammers posing as “sugar daddies” or young attractive women. 

“Extortion is not a crime. Sextortion is not a crime. It’s grand theft by extortion, or it’s grand theft by distortion that is the crime,” Thorne said.

It’s difficult to find exact statistics on extortion or sextortion, as grand theft by extortion or distortion covers a wide breadth of crimes.

Thorne’s interest in financial crimes began 15 years ago in his undergraduate capstone class at Boise State.

He began “The Talk” campaign, urging internet and social media users to “stop, question, and confirm” identities of those they interact with online to protect themselves from potential scams. 

[Someone receives flirty messages through a messaging app.]
Illustration by Sydney Smith

The most common form of sextortion occurs where the victim does not know the suspect. The suspect creates a fake profile, posing as a person their age with stolen photos from the internet and sends flirtatious messages via social media. 

The message exchange begins to edge towards sextortion when the fake profile sends nude photos taken from the internet and requests some from the victim. The target suspects are typically males ages 14 to 25 years old, according to Thorne.

Replying or sending photos can result in blackmail and aggressive messages threatening the person’s life. 

Sugar daddy scams solicit women. These online accounts message asking for a friendship or just offering to pay a person for photos of their body, from feet pics to full body images. Thorne and Whipps have seen sextortion on a range of online sites, from Instagram to Discord chats. 

“It was really surprising to hear that it was as big a crime as extortion,” Cole said. “But it made me feel more comfortable as a student to know that the officers are well aware of this issue and have strategies in place to combat it, versus it being just students having to deal with and face the consequences by themselves.”

Thorne and Whipps agree that one of the biggest hurdles for victims is the feeling of shame. 

Scamming has become a billion-dollar industry. Americans report a near sum of $8.8 billion lost to scams in 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commision.

 “I’ve had more conversations of people not wanting to report, but wanting advice once they have sent the money asking what to do,” Thorne said. “They’re in that panic stage.” 

In addition to reporting a sextortion scam to BPD, Idaho licensed attorney Margaret Lezamiz recommends that victims connect with a mental health counselor. Lezamiz offers free attorney consultations to Boise State students through the law firm of Schroeder & Lezamiz Law Offices LLP, according to the Dean of Students.

“I didn’t realize it was that big of an issue, because I haven’t seen it come through BSU as far as a student calling me saying, ‘I’m in trouble, this is what I’ve done,’ but this is a nationwide problem,” Lezamiz said. 

Boise State Public Safety releases a security and fire safety report annually. The report complies with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, according to Public Safety. Yet sextortion and extortion are not included in the report

Thorne speaks to whoever will listen about financial scams including banks, high schools, as well as his Facebook page where he posts daily updates on scam trends in Idaho and nationwide. 

 “I get scammed every day. But I also get at least one question from legitimate victims or people who may become victims and am able to respond,” Thorne said.

The nationwide problem of scams does not stop with sugar daddies and fake accounts. Romance scam victims pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to scammers every year because of curated romantic relationships with fake accounts online, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“Social media and those kinds of platforms do not do anything to protect you from that [sextortion]. You can report sites, and they don’t take them down. I think they should, and they should be responsible for their own platforms but they don’t,” Thorne said.

Campus events and university meetings like the one Cole attended are a part of Boise State Public Safety’s campaign to educate students about their role on campus and the help they provide to the student body.

“My worry is that in the future these photos and videos will be out there floating around on people’s computers, and when we get better facial recognition, these pictures and videos will get tied to people,” Whipps said. “So our target, especially at BSU, is to stop those photos and videos from going out in the first place.”

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