More than 500 Australian bank, financial services and digital currency accounts linked to offshore organised criminals sexually extorting Australian teenagers have been shut down under a multi-jurisdictional, AFP-led operation.
The AFP and Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC), working with the financial sector, have facilitated the closure of the bank accounts, which are held in Australia but are linked to international organised crime syndicates.
Today, it can be revealed AFP-led Operation Huntsman, which started in June 2022, is targeting Australian-based, sextortion bank accounts, which are sending money from distressed victims to offshore syndicates.
Sextortion involves the coercion of child victims into sending sexualised images and payments to offenders online through the offender pretending to be another young person.
The AFP is extremely concerned about this trend, which has been linked to instances of self-harm in Australia.
The AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) has recorded on average, more than 100 reports of this type of sextortion every month this year, which is a 100-fold increase from the past year.
Police fear the true number of victims in Australia is much higher with conservative estimates indicating that less than a quarter of minors report to police.
Operation Huntsman has led to disruptive action against more than 100 people operating more than 500 Australian bank accounts involved in moving money to the offshore criminals.
Similar action is pending against hundreds of more people as authorities work with industry to obtain the details of more than 1000 Australian bank and financial services accounts that are facilitating the flow of money out of the country.
Criminals offshore, purporting to be teenagers, are connecting with Australians online and asking for naked images and videos.
Once some images are shared, predators are demanding victims pay to keep them from being shared publicly or with family or friends.
AFP intelligence, covert online operatives and AUSTRAC are targeting criminals in Australia and offshore to ensure they face a hostile online environment, taking away their ability to move money offshore, gained through targeting and exploiting Australian children.
The AFP is also working with domestic and international law enforcement partners on a number of onshore and offshore investigations.
Offenders have traditionally been involved in this crime for sexual gratification, however, the offshore criminal networks driving the new surge in cases are seeking to profit financially from the victims.
AFP Commander Hilda Sirec said data showed more than 90 per cent of victims were male and predominantly 15-17 years of age, however police had seen victims as young as 10 years old.
“We are experiencing a global trend of offshore crime syndicates targeting teenagers, predominantly young men and boys, being coercing into sending sexually explicit content and then blackmailing them,” Commander Sirec said.
“The financial action that we have undertaken with Operation Huntsman so far is just the beginning; we will target and disrupt these offenders operating offshore, wherever they hide.
“The AFP’s partnership with AUSTRAC and our relationship with international law enforcement partners all over the world means these networks are not safe from our reach.”
AUSTRAC National Manager, Law Enforcement & Industry, Jon Brewer, said that criminal syndicates were exploiting young Australians for their own financial gain.
“Criminal syndicates are driven by the financial gains they can achieve through exploiting vulnerable members of our community,” he said.
“As Australia’s financial intelligence agency, AUSTRAC is uniquely placed to identify suspicious financial transactions that underpin crimes, including sextortion. The tradecraft and agility of our analysts enable AUSTRAC to follow the money as it crosses borders and financial and digital ecosystems.”
“The financial intelligence which we uncover and share with law enforcement partners in Australia and overseas trigger tangible flow on actions, including the identification of bank and financial service accounts associated with sexual extortion.
“AUSTRAC is also leveraging our close partnership with industry to increase the capability of industry partners to recognise suspicious transactions indicative of sexual exploitation, and to report this to AUSTRAC.”
The offshore criminal syndicates are blackmailing teenagers with threats to share their content unless they send the offenders money, gift cards or online gaming credits.
The offending often starts with a direct message on social media but can escalate very quickly once a victim has engaged.
The teenage victim is usually asked to continue chatting on a different app where the conversation becomes highly sexualised and the victim is coerced into self-generating child abuse material.
Once an offender has received a compromising image, they will use it to blackmail the victim with threats to share the picture or video with the friends and family on their social media contacts list unless they pay.
In some instances, offenders have doctored images to make the victim appear to be in even more compromising positions.
Authorities are not able to provide information about specific blackmail demands however generally investigators are seeing that offenders initially demand payment of a sum that would seem large to a teenager to pay.
The amount is then negotiated down to a limit the victim could pay. The demands for payment does not stop after an initial money transfers with offenders continuing to blackmail a victim until they are blocked.
There are also examples of offenders making young victims commit crimes to make them more money after they run out of funds to pay.
Commander Sirec said the AFP was expecting more young people to report cases of sextortion to police as a result of the going public about the trend.
“What we are asking of parents and carers is to be approachable and supportive if their child is a victim and to make sure they get the help they need. We know the offenders will try and make your child feel isolated from their trusted networks.
“Your child is a victim of online child sexual exploitation and they need your support.
“These situations can be very distressing and can have long term-impacts, and need to be addressed appropriately.
“We would also encourage any child facing a demand for money to not pay as this does not make the crime stop.
“When reporting to the ACCCE our specialist investigators prioritise the safety of children to make sure they are getting the help and support they need.”
If you, or someone you know is a victim of this crime and under the age of 18, we encourage you to make a report to police or online at the ACCCE at www.accce. gov.au.
To bolster the work of Op Huntsman the AFP is undertaking a range of awareness and education efforts including writing to all high school principals to alert them to this trend and seeking their support to share information with their students and school communities.
Through its Online Child Safety Team and ThinkUKnow Program, the AFP has developed an blackmail and sexual extortion response kit which includes key indicators that an online interaction may be a sign of sexual extortion and how to get help and support.
The rise in reports has seen the creation of the online blackmail and sexual extortion response kit to aid victims, along with their parents and guardians and more information on sextortion can be found here.
TIPS FOR A VICTIM OF SEXTORTION
- Stop the conversation
- Collect evidence (screenshots)
- Block the account (the most critical preventative action)
- Seek help from police or at the ACCCE (www.accce.gov.au ).
TIPS FOR PARENTS AND GUARDIANS:
Some of the AFP's top tips to keep children safe include having the privacy settings of their social media account set to 'friends only' or 'private' to ensure they are not contacted by someone wanting to do them harm, and turning off any location settings that could show where they go to school or where they live.
Parents should also encourage children not to share any personal information with 'friends' they meet online.
The AFP and its partners are committed to stopping child exploitation and abuse and the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation is driving a collaborative national approach to combatting child abuse.
The ACCCE brings together specialist expertise and skills in a central hub, supporting investigations into online child sexual exploitation and developing prevention strategies focused on creating a safer online environment.
Members of the public who have information about people involved in child abuse and are urged to contact the ACCCE at www.accce.gov.au/report. If you know abuse is happening right now or a child is at risk, call police immediately on 000.
Research conducted by the ACCCE in 2020 revealed only about half of parents talked to their children about online safety.
An award-winning podcast launched last year by the ACCCE 'Closing The Net' is working to change that, showcasing that knowledge is power and that our only chance to help prevent this issue is if we bring a 'whole-of-community' response.
The podcast series offers valuable tips and advice on how to keep kids safe online. Listen to the Closing The Net podcast on your favourite streaming platform.
If you or someone you know are impacted by child sexual abuse and online exploitation there are support services available at www.accce.gov.au/support.
Advice and support for parents and carers about how they can help protect children online can be found at www.thinkuknow.org.au, an AFP-led education program designed to prevent online child sexual exploitation.
Note to media:
Use of term 'CHILD ABUSE' MATERIAL NOT 'CHILD PORNOGRAPHY'
The correct legal term is Child Abuse Material – the move to this wording was among amendments to Commonwealth legislation in 2019 to more accurately reflect the gravity of the crimes and the harm inflicted on victims.
Use of the phrase "child pornography" is inaccurate and benefits child sex abusers because it:
- indicates legitimacy and compliance on the part of the victim and therefore legality on the part of the abuser; and
- conjures images of children posing in 'provocative' positions, rather than suffering horrific abuse.
Every photograph or video captures an actual situation where a child has been abused.
Media enquiries: AFP Media: (02) 5126 9297