Sex, Cameras and Minors: How criminals are profiting from sexting

In an age where photographs can be taken and exchanged instantaneously, sexual photos and videos  are becoming increasingly problematic.  The plights of sexually explicit photos specifically surround minors. Often referred to as “sexting,” the digital swapping of sexually related photographs and videos is an issue that plagues parenting, education, and law enforcement alike.

GRL Law has recently come across a new and interesting twist where criminals have figured out a very effective way to profit from the ever-increasing societal norm of sexting.  How can this be you ask?  A basic understanding of the five most relevant sexual offense laws sets the framework.

  1. Minors may legally have sex.  Iowa’s “Age of Consent” is 16-years old.  That means once a minor attains the age of 16, the consensual partner’s age is no longer a prohibiting factor to sexual activity.  Minors between the ages of 14 and 16 are also legally permitted to engage in sexual activity so long as their consenting partner is not 4 or more years older than them.
  2. It is a state and federal crime to photograph, film, or “otherwise preserve in a visual depiction,” of a minor engaged in a prohibited sexual act or simulation of a prohibited sexual act.  “Prohibited sex act” is defined as: “Nudity of a minor for the purpose of arousing or satisfying the sexual desires of a person who may view a visual depiction of a nude minor.”  Thus, a picture of a nude minor qualifies under this prohibition.  In Iowa courts, this offense is a Class C Felony.  It qualifies as Production of Child Pornography which is a Class B Felony in federal court, carrying with it a mandatory minimum punishment of 15 years in prison.  Simply put, taking a picture or video recording of a nude minor is a grave felony.
  3. In Iowa courts, it is also a Class C Felony to “persuade, induce, entice, coerce, solicit, knowingly permit, or otherwise attempt to cause a minor to engage in the creation of a visual depiction of a minor engaged in a prohibited sexual act.”  It is a felony to ASK a minor to create or send a nude picture or video of themselves.
  4. It is also both a federal and state sex offense to possess any visual depiction of a minor engaged in a prohibited sexual act.  Possession of these visual depictions is a crime in-and-of-itself.
  5. It is also a sex offense to send or show “obscene material” to a minor.  In basic terms, sending pictures or video recordings of one’s genitalia to a minor is also a sex offense.

These five laws set the foundation for the scam but the next three allow these enterprising criminals to close the deal.

  1. Consent of the minor is not a defense.  A minor cannot legally consent to be filmed or photographed in a prohibited manner. Consent is never a defense any of the sexting related offenses.
  2. Just as important, knowledge of the minor’s age is also not a defense to these charges.  A person could think they are sending and receiving pictures of a person over the age of 18.  Still, if it turns out the individual is under 18, a mistake of age is technically not a defense.
  3. The accused’s age is also not a defense to any of the charges associated with minors’ nude photographs or videos   Technically, 16 year-olds sexting each other are both committing state and federal felonies.

With the legal landscape set, here is how criminals are making money off of sexting. It is really quite simple.

They say “love is blind.”  Nowhere is this statement more accurate than when connections are made on the internet as aptly explained in country musician, Brad Paisley’s song, Online.  You are who you say you are online.  Criminals who engage in this scam troll and catch their victims on dating websites, smart phone apps and other internet based forums designed to connect romantic partners.  They make the initial connections in cyberspace and string their potential victim along, feigning romantic interest.  Soon, the communications are moved from the initial platforms to text messaging and other messaging mediums such as Snapchat or messenger apps.

Once transitioned to these alternative communication platforms, the nature of the communications become more sexual and explicit.  Criminals understand that it is basic human biology that once sex hormones are stimulated they are incredibly difficult to repress.  The conversations become more graphic, more detailed and are soon followed by requests for sexual photos or videos.  With sexting being so common-place and sexual arousal being elevated to a point where normal inhibitions have long been discarded, the unwitting victims don’t think twice about exchanging sexual photos.

Once sexual photographs are exchanged, the trap is sprung.  The criminals have everything they need to accomplish successful extortion.  A co-conspirator soon places a call playing the part of an irate parent who just found inappropriate photographs on their child’s phone.  The furiously sounding parent discloses to the duped victim that the person he/she was exchanging sexual pictures with was actually under the age of 18-years old.  The criminals explain the applicable state and federal offenses that the victim has committed and demand a significant monetary payment to “make it right.”

The victim, who likely has no true disposition toward criminality naturally panics.  They might even do a little of their own research.  Still, everything they come across indicates they have indeed committed a serious crime and face an end to life as they know it.  Payment of the demanded extortion is quickly determined to be the most reasonable and self-preserving solution.  If payment is not made immediately, additional calls follow from another co-conspirator pretending to be a local law enforcement detective.  This criminal threatens to file criminal charges if things are not “made right” with the family but says that if things are “made right,” all involved will forget it happened.

As you may suspect, this scam is incredibly successful and borders on criminal genius.  It works because people are rightfully fearful of the potential to have committed a state or federal offense if it turns out that the individual on the other end of the “sexting” exchanges was indeed under the age of 18.  Understandably, the duped victims are embarrassed and incredibly fearful of the perspective of facing life-altering criminal charges.  Just as important, who in their right mind is going to report a crime to law enforcement when there is a chance that by doing so, they would also be potentially incriminating themselves?!

Ultimately, the age-old wisdom of “if you wouldn’t put it on a billboard, don’t send it” rings true. For those who choose to disregard such wisdom, at least know who is truly on the other side of the communication.  It is also worth remembering, legitimate law enforcement will never agree to disregard sexual offense investigation if monetary payment is made to the accuser.  A little bit of self-restraint and common sense can go a long way.