Fighting against ‘sextortion’


LAST year, communications executive Anna decided to meet up with Stephen after chatting with him on a dating app (these are not their real names). After drinks, they returned to Stephen’s house. As Anna began sobering up, she grew uncomfortable with where the sexual activity was going.

“It started out as consensual, but then he started hurting me, ” she recalls.

Not long after, Anna, who is in her late 20s, received a text from Stephen warning her against relaying the sexual assault to anyone else, and saying that he had CCTV footage of them in a sexual act. Anna took Stephen’s words as the threat they were and became concerned for her safety and privacy. “At that point, I was panicking but mostly felt numb. I knew that if I started begging him (not to distribute the footage) he might start using that against me.

“So I consulted a friend who helped me through the situation, ” says Anna, explaining how her friend provided much needed emotional support and advice.

One of the biggest fears that Anna has about talking about her experience is the prospect of victim-blaming that is common in our society: “It is a terrible feeling when people think what you went through is not legitimate, ” she says.

Cases of sexual extortion, or “sextortion”, where victims are blackmailed with threats of the disclosure of images and videos of a sexual nature are becoming more frequent as connectivity increases and more people go online.

While women make up the bulk of targets, they are not the only ones who become prey in these cases.

Sam (not his real name), a marketing executive in his 30s, received a message from a friend a few weeks ago alerting him to an online impersonator who had created an Instagram profile featuring images of Sam taken from his original account. The person then sent a message to Sam’s friends saying that sexually explicit photos of Sam will be released. Acting quickly, Sam reported the account to Instagram and asked his friends to likewise report the fake profile. Within a few hours, the account was taken down.

While investigating, Sam found out that something similar had happened to a friend of his where the impersonator had begun trying to extort money.

“It’s really important in this situation to stay calm, ” says Sam, who had been prepared to make a police report if the situation had escalated. “Many people don’t realise posting pictures or private information of someone else is illegal – legal action can be taken against the culprit.

“Since I am older, this kind of thing might shake me but it is something that I know I can overcome. I think the situation would be very difficult and overwhelming for someone who is younger, ” he says.

Loss of life is a risk

Last week, netizens exposed a local Telegram group with more than 35,000 members that had been sharing images of women without their knowledge or consent. And last month, a couple was arrested in Petaling Jaya for extorting RM1,000 from a woman by threatening to make use of nude photos. The victim had made two previous payments but the blackmail continued until she took the matter to the authorities.

There are also instances of Non-Consensual Dissemination of Intimate Images (NCII), where sexually explicit images or videos of individuals are distributed without their consent to cause distress or embarrassment not only to the victim but also his or her family.

Without the right help, some targets may feel so trapped and stressed that they end up taking their own lives.

In August, a 20-year-old man was sentenced to 21 months’ jail for criminal intimidation and possession of pornographic material after he threatened to distribute edited photos of a 17-year-old schoolgirl, which led to her suicide.

It is heartbreaking that such incidents can end in the loss of an innocent life. This is why it is important for us to know our rights and how to seek help.Tip of the iceberg Bukit Aman Sexual, Women and Child Investigations Division (D11) Assistant Direct Asst Comm Siti Kamsiah Hassan urges people facing sextortion to lodge a report with the police – they can help, she says.

“For criminal cases, the police have the power to investigate, collect evidence, arrest and question suspects.

“The police will also inform other relevant agencies, like the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), so that they can stop the material from being circulated and accessed by others, ” she says, adding that targets can also choose to go directly to the MCMC.

See graphic above for details of steps you can take to help yourself if you’re targeted.

In emergencies, when someone is in the midst of being extorted, Siti Kamsiah advises calling 999 so that officers can be immediately dispatched to the ground. Alternatively, victims can call their district police headquarters for swift action.

According to police data, from January to August this year there were 31 cases of non-physical sexual assault, most relating to sexual extortion. Last year, 42 cases were recorded. These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg and may not accurately reflect the severity of the situation on the ground. For one thing, many cases do not get reported because victims fear coming forward.

Another reason for the low number is how cases are recorded. Siti Kamsiah explains that sextortion often escalates to physical assault or rape.

“When more than one offence occurs against a victim and one police report is made, for example on extortion and rape, it would be recorded under the category of rape as the offence carries a heavier punishment. However, investigations are still classified under both Section 376 (rape) and Section 383 (extortion) of the Penal Code, ” she explains.Getting help from different sourcesApart from the criminal laws that offer cyber sextortion victims protection listed in the table above, victims can also take civil action against perpetrators, says Teeruvarasu K. Muthusamy, a civil and crime litigation lawyer who has represented sextortion victims in the past.

He adds that those unable to afford a private lawyer can turn to the Legal Aid Centre where free legal aid is extended to those earning less than RM3,000 a month.

“The Women’s Aid Organisation (wao.org.my) also offers legal services and is definitely an avenue worth considering, as they also offer emotional support to women battling the horrors of having compromising images of themselves being circulated, ” he says.

He adds that if a victim feels that police are not taking action, a complaint can be lodged with the Bukit Aman Sexual, Women and Child Investigations Division (D11).

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