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Cyber extortion
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Differences between state, federal, and cyber-blackmailing

The Story

An unknown person was contacting Tevan from multiple phone lines connected to a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) line. The unknown suspect had a video of Tevan that he threatened to share with his friends and family if Tevan did not pay the blackmailer. The suspect claimed that due to the content of the video, if it became public, Tevan would be at risk of extreme fines and even incarceration. Tevan pleaded for him to delete the video. The suspect demanded the ransom be sent to him via Western Union, or else.

Tevan sent all the money he had.

But like many sextortion cases, the blackmail didn’t stop after payment was received. It continued, and it escalated. It got so bad that Tevan, a 16-year-old with his entire life ahead of him, decided suicide was the only way out.

Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands of websites that are commonly used for web blackmailing or sextortion of minors and adults-alike. There are also a multitude of television shows on various networks that feature web blackmailing or sextortion which is commonly depicted by a defendant using a fake identity to lure or even persuade another to undress, perform sexual acts or send images for purposes of extortion.

The Law

There are five codes under California law that address the varying degrees and types of blackmailing and extortion. Cyberbullying, sextortion, or whatever common term may be used is, in fact, against the law in the State of California. Cyber-blackmailing or sextortion is quite recent with the introduction of the Internet, social media platforms, and video technology. Shows like “Web of Lies” on the ID channel, “To Catch a Predator” on MSNBC and others are a strong depiction of the multi-billion dollar industry this form of extortion has taken place. 

Is it a Crime?

In short, yes! Nearly every state in the country has laws criminalizing non-consent distribution and publication of compromising images whether one is charged until sextortion or revenge pornography statutes. A person commits the crime of sexual extortion if he or she knowingly causes or attempts to cause another person to engage in sexual intercourse, sodomy, sexual contact, or in a sexual act or to produce any photograph, digital image, video, film, or other recording of any person, whether recognizable or not, engaged in any act of sadomasochistic abuse, sexual intercourse, sodomy, sexual excitement, masturbation, breast nudity, genital nudity, or other sexual conduct by communicating any threat to injure the body, property, or reputation of any person.

In the federal court system; however, there are no specific codes or statutes for “sextortion.” There is some legislation under the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act of 2019 that has been introduced; however, the government relies heavily on individual state statutes to address these behaviors. It is important to note; however, that there are several federal statutes that have been used to charge and prosecute activity involving children. 

Differences

There is a primary difference between state and federal laws applicable to sextortion that highlights a significant federal deficiency. Federal laws targeting the sexual elements of sextortion activity treat the age of the victim as an element of the crime rather than an aggravating factor. Thus, most federal laws used to prosecute sextortion activity that does not involve a minor victim are federal laws that are not specifically focused on the sexual exploitation of the victim. This results in significant sentencing disparities based on the status of the victims.

Regardless of the classification of the offense, it is important that you seek the assistance of competent legal counsel to help you best understand your legal defense while identifying an outcome that best minimizes your risk. We here at the H Law group patiently await your call.

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