Sextortion is booming, not just in New Zealand but worldwide, and an expert says it’s different to other cyber crimes.

Warning: This article details online abuse.

Police yesterday said reports from victims and online offenders of child exploitation have “quadrupled” in the last five years.

In 2023, New Zealand authorities – including DIA, Customs and police – received nearly 19,865 referrals from America’s National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. About 200 of those referrals per month currently go to police.

Olivia Carville, a Kiwi journalist at Bloomberg in New York, has extensively investigated the issue in the US.

She told Breakfast this morning: “I think it’s best to put it in the words of the FBI, and they describe this crime as a hidden pandemic.

“Former exploitation or online exploitation predatory issues tend to target young girls and teenage girls – but this crime is different.

“Not only are teen boys being targeted, but the predators are financially motivated.

“They’re not contacting these individuals for additional sexual images, they want money from them.”

Social media was key to the issue. Carville said it was “the largest directory of teenagers in the world”.

“Not only are they trying to find the individuals through social media,” she added.

“But once they do identify a potential target, they then have access to all of their friend groups and are able to see who they’re closest to, who their parents are, who their girlfriends are, and use that information against them to attempt to blackmail them.”

The social media companies didn’t want this kind of criminal behaviour on their platforms, Carville said.

“This is a worst-case scenario for the likes of Instagram, and they are putting up guardrails to try and prevent this kind of behaviour from spreading — but they always seem to be one step behind the bad actors.

“Unfortunately, the scammers are savvy and they know how to get around those guardrails and sidestep the efforts of the platforms.

“That’s why this crime has just spread so fast and it’s been impossible to stop thus far.”

Raising awareness was key to the solution, Carville said.

She wanted people to have conversations and help teenagers understand the risks.

“We now live in a world where pretty much every teenager is on social media, kids are growing up with smartphones, they’re using them at younger and younger ages.

“[So] where do we put the responsibility?” she asked. “Is it on the platforms to do what they can to try and prevent this? Yes.

“Is it also on lawmakers to try and come up with regulation to try and combat this? Yes.

“[But also] a lot of this responsibility does fall on the shoulders of parents.”

Online child exploitation is a crime. New Zealand Police have multiple ways in which reports of this serious offending can be received. In an emergency, call 111. Alternatively, you can call 105 or complete a report online.