Kathryn Rifenbark is telling a group of investigators and prosecutors in Abuja, Nigeria about an alarming new type of sextortion being reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). Using a real case sent to NCMEC's CyberTipline, she shows them how easily, and quickly, a predator victimizes a teenager in the United States from a computer in their country:
8:07 p.m.: A high-school senior begins chatting online with someone he believes is an attractive teen-age girl who follows a lot of his friends on Instagram.
10:07 p.m.: His flirty new friend convinces him to share an explicit photo of himself, assuring him it will be private. "You look hot," she says. The 17-year-old soon realizes his friend is actually a male predator posing as a girl.
10:23 p.m.: The predator begins blackmailing him for $1,000, warning him he'll share the explicit image with his family and friends. The teenager begs him to delete it, but he gets more aggressive. The teenager doesn't have the money and threatens to kill himself. "Good," the predator says. "Do that fast. Or I'll make you do it."
12:23 a.m.: The teenager kills himself, one of a growing number of suicides in financial sextortion cases in recent months.
Rifenbark, who works in NCMEC's Exploited Children Division, was in Nigeria for a week as part of Project Boost, a program implemented by the Center to End Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, part of International Justice Mission. (IJM) NCMEC is partnering with IJM to help law enforcement around the world respond to the huge volume of CyberTipline reports the non-profit organization sends to other countries for potential investigation.
Kathryn Rifenbark explains new trends NCMEC is seeing from CyberTipline reports.
Last year alone, NCMEC’s CyberTipline received a staggering 29 million reports, the vast majority depicting child sexual abuse material (CSAM) in which children are being sexually abused, even raped, in images and videos. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, submits by far the largest number of reports – more than 26 million in 2021. Meta is helping fund the Project Boost program.
Child sexual exploitation on the internet knows no boundaries. About 93 percent of all CyberTipline reports are linked to potential offenders outside the U.S. Reports are sent on secure networks to law-enforcement agencies in more than 140 countries, including Europol and Interpol. Nigeria received 57,000 CyberTipline reports last year alone.
In addition to Nigeria, NCMEC employees have conducted trainings in Kenya and Ghana as part of Project Boost, which aims to help at least four countries a year, said Brandon Kaopuiki, technical advisor of the program. The large number of CyberTipline reports consistently outpaces law enforcement's ability to effectively access, assess and act on the reports, he said.
Investigators and prosecutors in Nigeria attending the Boost training.
The goal is to improve access to the CyberTipline through NCMEC's Case Management Tool and to provide training, mentoring and workshops to facilitate rescues of child victims, arrests and prosecutions, said Kaopuiki. Local attorneys discuss relevant laws in each country to aid investigations.
"We're not just teaching concepts, we're giving a 'boost' to countries receiving these reports, said Kaopuiki, who has a law-enforcement background. "We're helping them investigate real cases in a supportive environment. Our ultimate intent is seeing children protected."
Jason Barry, a Trust and Safety Manager with Meta who helped lead the training, said what makes Project Boost so unique, and vital, is that it's a hands-on, deep-dive training into the details of how to understand CyberTipline reports, overviews of Meta’s products and how to issue valid legal process to further investigate. Moreover, participants get six months of weekly online consultations, then a five-day follow-up workshop with a brief refresher training.
By using real cases, investigators with already busy caseloads don't have to fall behind at work to attend, Kaopuiki said. Enthusiasm and appreciation was palpable in a video produced by the National Agency for the Prohibition of the Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) of Nigeria, whose director general and officers attended the training.
Dr. Fatima Waziri-Azi, Director General of NAPTIP, said they’re seeing more cases of child online sexual exploitation and sextortion in Nigeria by predators who are difficult to apprehend and prosecute.
“This is new terrain for us,” Waziri-Azi told the group. “This training is something we need to enable us to do our jobs effectively as well as boost productivity and skill.”
During the week-long training, Rifenbark explained NCMEC's role as the largest and most influential child protection organization in the U.S. and reviewed current trends seen in CyberTipline reports such as financial sextortion. In recent years, the primary motivation for sextortion was to obtain more explicit photos, such as in the case of 15-year-old Amanda Todd. The Canadian student was a victim of sextortion and cyberbullying and took her life in 2012. The predator who sextorted her was recently convicted – 10 years later – and given a lengthy prison term.
Now the primary motivation for sextortion appears to be financial, and most of these victims are males, Rifenbark says. Online chats follow an extremely aggressive timeline, with offenders telling them they are willing to ruin their lives. Children have paid up to thousands of dollars, and their imagery was still shared online. The volume of children affected is significant, and financial sextortion has become tantamount to a cottage industry on a global scale.
As part of the training, Rifenbark told the class about the variety of CyberTipline reports NCMEC receives, primarily for CSAM but also other crimes, including online enticement like sextortion, child sex trafficking and child sexual molestation, and explained how to prioritize them.
“They brought their full hands-on presentations; the models delivered were very teachable,” said Nne Bassey Okon, with the Federal Ministry of Justice. “They actually taught and not lectured. I’m going away with so many tools that will help me.”