The number of "sextortion" cases reported to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division almost tripled during the last three years, according to statistics provided by the division to Military.com, as some experts blame isolation during the pandemic.
In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CID received 56 reports of sextortion. The next year, the number of reports skyrocketed to 147 cases -- a 163% increase. That number stayed relatively steady throughout 2021 at 132 cases.
In 2022, Army CID says that it has already received 61 reports of sextortion nearing the year's midpoint.
Sextortion is a category of sex crimes in which a scammer threatens to distribute or publicize someone's "sensitive material" in exchange for money or sexual favors, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The material is sexual in nature and can include video recordings, pictures or messages used for blackmail and without consent from the victim.
"CID continues to aggressively take actions to prevent, investigate, and educate against these types of scams targeting our service members and families," said Edward LaBarge, assistant director of the CID's Cyber Directorate. "This type of scam is an easy one to execute and a favorite amongst scammers."
The financial losses faced by those who are blackmailed can be substantial, with an estimated $144,000 in losses reported in the last six months alone.
Ursula Palmer, executive director of the Military & Veteran Programs at the Cybercrime Support Network, or CSN, was unsurprsised at the statistics and said that this increase could be because of isolation and loneliness experienced by service members, veterans and families during the pandemic.
"Like with almost any other cybercrime, the fact that we were stuck at home -- a lot of people were very lonely," she said.
Palmer added that those "stuck at home for a year" were often turning to dating sites to find affection.
"And then it happens that the person you were talking to wasn't who they said they were," she continued. "They were just trying to get those images or videos so that they could extort you as a target."
Sextortion, often referred to as "revenge porn," can happen on any number of websites, and perpetrators "may threaten to post the images or videos unless the victim meets their demands, such as sending more explicit material or money," CSN describes on a webpage it set up to help inform victims and potential victims.
Some sextortion scammers can attempt to pose as an authority figure like a law enforcement officer to intimidate service members and veterans further.
The CID said that victims collectively lost an estimated $428,000 to sextortion between 2019 and 2022.
Army CID recommends several habits and tips that service members can use to protect themselves.
"Before you send any personal information or images across the internet, before you post any personal information or images on a social networking site, before you engage in online video sessions or stream live video, think beyond the initial consequences," a CID spokesperson told Military.com. "Overcoming the embarrassment and reporting sextortion is important."
"The problem with the lack of good reporting is that we end up speculating," she said. "It could be many things. … Maybe if the service member is deployed, away from the family, maybe he did or didn't have a relationship before leaving, they need that affection and they end up becoming victims of sextortion."
She added that service members, veterans and their families are particularly vulnerable because of the benefits -- like a Basic Housing Allowance or disability check -- they may receive. Scammers see a "steady paycheck or steady benefits" and exploit the military community because of it, she said.
Experts and Army officials have offered some solutions to both the underreporting and the sextortion issue as a whole, such as support groups.
The Army said it is also focused on prevention and encourages reporting, pointing to national security concerns as well.
"Remaining silent increases the likelihood of continued harassment and extortion, and may make you susceptible to blackmail, coercion and undue influence of a foreign government," the CID spokesperson said.
Congress has also recognized the need for better cybercrime reporting with the "Better Cybercrime Metrics Act," a bill that was signed into law in May aimed at giving law enforcement more tools and information to report on and prevent cyber-related crimes.
The CID also offered other tips for service members in the event they suspect they are victims of sextortion:
- Do not send money.
- Stop communicating with the person.
- Save all communications you have had with the person.
- Scan all computer devices for viruses and other malicious software.
- Record any telephone numbers, email addresses, usernames and profiles you might have received from the person.
- Contact law enforcement authorities as soon as possible and follow their instructions.
Sextortion is not the only fraud-based crime that involves or affects service members and their families. The Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2020, troops, veterans and their families filed more than 150,000 reports of fraud or identity theft, with the Army – also the military’s biggest branch – representing the majority of reports and $47 million in estimated total loss.
Service members report scams at exponentially higher rates than their civilian counterparts.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.