Social media firms can’t be let ‘off the hook’ for deadly sextortion of kids: Eby

Social media firms can't be let 'off the hook' for deadly sextortion of kids: Eby
British Columbia Premier David Eby speaks during a news conference in Surrey, B.C., Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.

Premier David Eby says social media companies can’t be let “off the hook” after two British Columbia teens fell victim to online sextortion scams and died by suicide in the past year.

“We are going to take action against them for allowing this to happen,” he said Wednesday.

Eby’s comments came one day after Surrey RCMP announced a man in Nigeria had been arrested and charged there in one of those cases following a lengthy international investigation.

They did not confirm the name of the victim, but said his “sudden” death last February led to the discovery he had been a victim of “financial sextortion.”

Police and advocates warn that the speed of instant messaging on social media required an extra level of vigilance from children and their parents.

Mounties told reporters the online interaction between the Surrey boy and the suspect in Nigeria lasted only minutes.

READ ALSO: Suspect charged in Nigeria over sextortion of B.C. boy who died: Surrey RCMP

Sgt. Tammy Lobb said in an interview Wednesday that the teen was exploited on Instagram and Snapchat.

“Those are two common platforms that seem to be trending in terms of sextortion,” she said.

Eby told the unrelated news conference Wednesday that the province intends to hold technology companies accountable, but that will take time, so it’s working to educate parents and children to protect themselves against sextortion schemes.

“We’ll make sure that parents and kids have the tools they need to respond if they’re going to continue to operate in such an irresponsible and reprehensible way,” he said.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection, which has said it receives 70 reports of sextortion to its tip line each week, has also been calling for accountability from the technology industry. It said in a news release last week that it has failed to protect citizens from online harms.

Signy Arnason, associate executive director at the centre, said Wednesday that she agrees parents need to be engaged in protecting their kids from online harms, but that shouldn’t take the spotlight from technology companies.

“This is no different than when we teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street, but we also implement standards by which drivers of vehicles have to follow,” she said.

“We want platforms — so Instagram and Snapchat, where a lot of this type of activity occurs — to ensure that their platforms are safer.”

The announcement about the arrest in Nigeria came on the heels of a similar case in Prince George, B.C., where 12-year-old Carson Cleland died by suicide in October.

But online sextortion is not new.

The crime gained national attention almost a decade ago when 15-year-old Amanda Todd from Port Coquitlam, B.C., died by suicide after posting a video where she used flash cards to describe being tormented by an anonymous cyberbully. It has been watched more than 15 million times.

Dutch national Aydin Coban was convicted in the B.C. Supreme Court in 2022 of child pornography, child luring and criminal harassment. He was sent back to the Netherlands where he is now serving a six-year jail term.

READ ALSO: Mother praises Dutch court for sentencing Amanda Todd’s tormentor to six years

Amanda’s mother, Carol Todd, said she has seen the trend of sextortion shift in the decade since Amanda’s death.

“It’s sort of trending away from these cases like Amanda’s, where it was over a period of time, and they’re just sort of casting a wide net, and things are happening a little bit more rapidly,” she said.

Brandon Laur, the CEO of White Hatter, a Victoria-based internet safety company, agreed. He said there are two types of sextortion schemes his company investigates.

The first occurs when scammers attempt to extort as many people as possible and, “If they get rejected, they just move on to the next target.”

The other type is a longer-term scheme that involves fostering a relationship with the victim before attempting sextortion, as was seen in the Amanda Todd case.

“That long-term approach we don’t see happening very often because it’s easier for (the exploiters) to cast a wider net, because they’re going to get more bites,” he said, which will result in more financial gains.

Arnason said the shorter-term sextortion cases tend to target boys and are more financially-motivated.

Todd said Surrey’s announcement about the sextortion arrest is a “positive” development that signals multi-jurisdictional police collaboration, but she hopes the same efforts are being initiated for living victims.

Sgt. Lobb said though she can only weigh in on cases in her jurisdiction, living victims’ cases are “investigated just as thoroughly as any other one.”

She added that officers are also proactively working to engage with youth in Surrey to educate them on topics including sextortion.

She said their key message to youth is that “even though these offenders may make you feel like your life is over or ruined, you are not alone and life can go on after these threats.”

Laur said the White Hatter has a guide for what to do if sextortion happens.

He said victims should not engage with the extortionists. Instead, they should immediately stop all communication, screen capture everything and not pay the ransom because the extortionists will likely come back for more.

Next, he said, victims should deactivate, but not delete, their social media accounts so the evidence is preserved for police. If their account remains active, he advises not to accept any friend requests for at least 48 hours.

Laur said youth should then report the incident to police and tell their parents, but warned not to hire fee-for-service takedown companies as they could also be scammers.

When asked about tips for parents, Laur said he suggests they speak to their children about the harms and suggests working to “be part of their online experiences.”

“Most relationships are built on shared experiences. Why should the parent-child relationship be any different,” he said.

He added that many of the cases he knew of happened late at night when children were unsupervised.

“So getting those devices out of the bedroom is a really important step, in our opinion,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2024.

Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian PressBrieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press

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