Sex + Extortion: A Call for Federal Criminalization of a Rising Cybercrime

“I can never get that photo back. It’s out there forever.”1 These were the words of 15-year old Amanda Todd as she documented her story of bullying, harassment, and extortion on YouTube.2 Todd used flashcards to narrate how she became a victim — detailing how her aggressor tormented her by posting an uncompromising photo of her on the Internet after she refused to give into his sexual demands.3

While Todd was struggling to find an escape route from her tormentor, meanwhile in the United States, Luis Mijangos was being prosecuted for hacking into the computers of approximately 230 victims and blackmailing them for sexual material.4 Federal investigation revealed that the 32-year old paraplegic had more than 15,000 web-cam captures, 900 audio recordings, and 13,000 screen captures of his victims saved on his computer.5

Todd committed suicide just over a month later after the posting of the 2012 YouTube video.6 To date, the video imploring for help and support by the Canadian teenager7 has garnered more than eleven million views.8 Todd’s suspected tormentor is a 38-year old Dutch male, who will be facing separate charges for blackmail and distribution of child pornography in the Netherlands before being extradited to Canada to stand trial.9 On the other hand, Mijangos — whose blackmailing and harassment scheme reached as far as New Zealand — was sentenced to six years, and is scheduled to be released next year.8

Both cases highlight the devastating and egregious effects of the cybercrime phenomenon informally known as “sextortion.” Sextortion is the use of coercion to intimidate victims into producing and satisfying demands for sexual favors.9 With the advent of new technologies and cyberspace, the concept of having clear and defined borders has diminished as human interactions have increased exponentially over the World Wide Web. Therefore, sextortion is a sex crime that has transgressed national borders: “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.”10

Given the serious privacy issues that arise in connection with this cybercrime, one would think that the subject has been thoroughly addressed. However, sextortion is a heavily understudied issue.11 Despite it being a crime that has always existed, sextortion has recently garnered media attention as a growing threat12, and a proposal for federal criminalization of sextortion was just introduced in July.13

Although in the U.S. sextortion is recognized as a crime, there is no state or federal statute specifically classifying it as so.14 Instead, sextortion is prosecuted under a myriad of federal and state laws concerning extortion, cyber hacking, and child pornography, thereby producing inconsistent sentencing across jurisdictions.15 Furthermore, due to the Government’s strong interest in protecting minors, child pornography laws produce invariable sentencing results in federal courts between sextortion cases involving minors and those involving adults.16

Although there is much to be done with tightening cyber security and online privacy, the passage of the Interstate Sextortion Prevention Act — calling for the federal criminalization of sextortion — is a first step towards that direction.17

  1. Amanda Todd, My story: Struggling, Bullying, Suicide, Self Harm, YouTube (Sept. 7, 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOHXGNx-E7E.
  2. Id.; Christina Ng, Bullied Teen Leaves Behind Chilling Video, ABC News (Oct. 12, 2012),
    http://abcnews.go.com/International/bullied-teen-amanda-todd-leaves-chilling-youtube-video/story?id=17463266.
  3. Todd, supra note 1.
  4. Benjamin Wittes et al., Sextortion: Cybersecurity, Teenagers, and Remote Sexual Assault, Brookings 2 (May 11, 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/sextortion1-1.pdf.
  5. David Kushner, The Hacker is Watching, GQ Magazine (January 11, 2012), http://www.gq.com/story/luis-mijangos-hacker-webcam-virus-internet.
  6. Ng, supra note 2.
  7. Ng, supra note 2.
  8. Wittes, supra note 4, at 2.
  9. Wittes, supra note 4, at 3.
  10. Wittes, supra note 4, at 3.
  11. Wittes, supra note 4, at 4.
  12. See Steve Large, Prosecutors: ‘Sextortion’ Cases Targeting Young Women At Alarming Rate, CBS Sacramento (Sept. 29, 2016), http://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2016/09/22/prosecutors-sextortion-cases-targeting-young-women-at-alarming-rate/(discussing how the Sacramento District Attorney’s office has just opened up its first cyber unit focusing on sextortion cases.).
  13. Susan Grigsby, To Convict A Creep, Daily Kos (July 24, 2016), http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/7/24/1549756/-Sextortion-To-convict-a-creep.
  14. Wittes, supra note 4, at 15.
  15. Benjamin Wittes et al., Closing the Sextortion Sentencing gap: A Legislative Proposal, Brookings 3 (May 11, 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/research/closing-the-sextortion-sentencing-gap-a-legislative-proposal/(discussing the discrepancy in sentencing of sextortion cases brought in state and federal courts: “The average sentence in the six state cases . . . is 88 months (seven years and 4 months). By contrast, the average sentence in the 49 federal cases that have produced a sentence less than life in prison (one case has produced a life sentence) is, by contrast, 349 months (just over 29 years).”).
  16. Id. at 3-4 (discussing how sextortion cases involving minors are punished more severely than those involving adults: “[In] cases that involved minor victims, the sentencing range varied from seven months to 139 years imprisonment, with a median of 288 months (24 years) and a mean sentence of 369 months (31 years). . . [A]dult victims, by contrast, involved sentencing ranges from one month to six-and-a-half years imprisonment, with a median sentence of only 40 months and a mean sentence of 38 months.”).
  17. Grigsby, supra note 15.

Author: Amna Toor

Amna Toor graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University in 2014 with a B.A. in Political Science, and a minor in Religion. During her first year at Rutgers Law School, Amna discovered her passion for civil rights and developed an interest in intellectual property. Over the summer of 2016, Amna interned for the Sikh Coalition - the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the country. Previously, she has interned in the Middlesex County Superior Court, Family Division, for the Honorable Lisa M. Vignuolo, J.S.C., served as a student volunteer for the Honorable Morris Stern Pro Bono Bankruptcy Project, and has been a teaching assistant for a legal writing and analysis course at Rutgers Law School. In her free time, Amna enjoys traveling and reading.