23 May 2024

Sextortion expert and Meta whistleblower Paul Raffile

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 23 May 2024

As part of a disturbing global trend, New Zealanders are being coerced by criminals into sharing explicit photos online which are then used for blackmail.

In the past two years, young people have become the focus of scammers with fake Instagram and Snapchat accounts, says American internet exploitation expert Paul Raffile.

"These criminals are coercing teens into producing and sending an explicit photo and immediately after they're being blackmailed for money," he tells Kathryn Ryan.

A man shops online.

A man shops online. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Just hours after Raffile publicly criticised Instagram's failure to protect children on their platform, its parent company Meta rescinded a job offer they had made him.

He says the owners of Instagram and Snapchat are not doing enough to counter "real-world harm" perpetrated on their platforms by online crime groups such as the Yahoo Boys.

"Meta has had two years to de-platform [the Yahoo Boys]. But if you go on Facebook today, you will be able to find Yahoo Boys groups where they are explicitly sharing how-to guides on about how to blackmail kids, how to sextort, the images to use, the scripts to use and they don't even bother to hide these crimes.

"This crime has exploded because the criminals are sharing their how-to guides and that has allowed it to propagate at scale."

While the crime of sextortion is not exactly new, in the past two years, it has been increasingly weaponised for financial gain and the targets are getting younger, Raffile says.

On Instagram, scammers can 'catfish' up to 100 young users a day using the same fake profiles with the same profile photos.

"These are all detectable patterns that the platforms should be able to identify and then prevent this behaviour from occurring."

While Meta's Dangerous Organizations and Individuals policy has done "a fairly good job" of de-platforming terrorist organisations like ISIS, Raffile says, they do not appear to view groups like the Yahoo Boys as dangerous because they are not necessarily violent. He disagrees with this assessment.

"In my opinion, they are now violent criminals and they should be classified under this policy. Once Meta does that, now they have a whole army of analysts who can go out there and deplatform these criminals, left and right, as their sole job."

Meta knows that the primary source of leverage for sextortion on Instagram is the criminals' use of screenshotted followers list, Raffile says, and have chosen not to allow a privacy option.

"Platforms like Instagram could make those following lists private by default always. Even if a kid does inadvertently accept a scammer or criminals follow request, why does that list have to be exposed to [the scammer] immediately upon that acceptance?"

In the US, sextortion groups targeting minors have been traced primarily to Nigeria but also the Ivory Coast and the Philippines, Raffile says.

The victims tend to be male teens who are "good kids" with the most to lose if compromising images are leaked.

High school sports teams are often targeted, he says, with the scammer, using a fake profile, adding all of the players as a friend.

"That does two things - it increases their follower count, which makes their catfish account seem more legitimate, and b, to the victim, when they get that friend request, they see 'Oh, this person has 15 mutual followers or 15 mutual friends - maybe they're just someone at school who I haven't met yet'. That increases the credibility of that catfisher account."

Financial sextortion groups like the Yahoo Boys are "master manipulators" who usually open their conversation with a target with some flirty chat that quickly turns sexual before sending a (fake) explicit image and requesting the same.

"As soon as they get the picture, it's 'Hey, I have your nudes, I've screenshotted all your friends, your followers, your family. I'm going to leak it to all of them'."

Here in New Zealand, the internet support agency Netsafe received 1800 reports of financial sextortion the past year.

With most Kiwis using a Meta product - Instagram, Facebook or WhatsApp - we've got to "deshame" the victims of this crime here, says Netsafe chief executive Brent Carey.

Sextortion often goes unreported, Carey says, but it is important people speak up to help stamp out this kind of crime.

"It is a game of disruption so we do need to link up the data more so that we can then give it to the police. it's an intelligence game to try and move them away from New Zealanders."

Carey encourages anyone concerned about sextortion to contact Netsafe.

"Don't pay any money, don't meet the demands. We'll help you collect the screenshots and evidence you need and then we can try and report it and block it.

"If [explicit content] is uploaded, we can actually try and help it stop going viral. My main message is if you find yourself in this situation not to panic and contact Netsafe."

Where to get help:

  • Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
  • Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
  • Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
  • Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
  • Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz
  • What's Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.
  • Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
  • Healthline: 0800 611 116
  • Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
  • OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Sexual Violence

Family Violence