GROTON, Conn. — After a spike in reports of sexual extortion, or sextortion, across the Navy, including at the Naval Submarine Base, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service is warning sailors not to engage in sexually explicit activities online.
Sextortion is a crime in which someone requests money in exchange for not releasing sexually explicit images or information.
Both the number of cases and incidents is growing, according to NCIS, which says that since August 2012, perpetrators have targeted at least 160 sailors and Marines across the country, resulting in the loss of about $45,000.
Typically, perpetrators will request anywhere from $500 to $1,500.
"We've had service members individually pay as much as $11,000," NCIS Division Chief Megan Bolduc said. "It only stops because credit cards were maxed out."
Officials don't have specific data on the number of incidents that have occurred at the sub base.
An April 28 article in the base's newspaper, The Dolphin, quotes local NCIS Special Agent Ryan Colwell as saying there have been "multiple instances of Sailors here being victimized in the past six months alone."
The actual number of incidents could be much higher, given that many victims are embarrassed to report that they've been the victim of such schemes.
The encounters often start on social media sites such as Facebook, or dating websites such as PlentyOfFish or MeetMe.
On Facebook, sailors will receive a friend request from an attractive individual they don't know, but with whom they might have mutual friends.
Perpetrators will send requests to multiple people in a community, such as sailors in the same Naval Submarine School class or boot camp classmates, to establish the appearance of legitimacy.
At some point, the sailor and the perpetrator exchange contact information and that's often followed by the sharing of explicit photos and videos.
The images also are shared via direct message on various social media platforms.
The perpetrator then will threaten to release the pictures or videos if the sailor doesn't wire money.
Even after a sailor wires money, the perpetrator can keep them on the hook for more.
Most of the wire transfers are going to international accounts in the Philippines, which requires complaints to be filed in person.
"We are working to see if there are any ties to the states where we might be able to prosecute individuals accordingly," Bolduc said.
When the encounters happen on dating websites, which require users to be 18 years old, often a person, who alleges that he is a law enforcement officer or the perpetrator's father, reaches out to the sailor.
That person claims the sailor has shared images with a minor and is in possession of child pornography, and threatens to file charges.
In some cases, the pictures or videos have made it onto Facebook or YouTube. Both sites have been "very responsive," Bolduc said.
"If you call and report the issue, they will take the videos down," she said.
Service members, a large portion of whom are young men who are away from home, are more vulnerable to sextortion because of their steady income and the heavy scrutiny of their conduct, which means they are going to be fearful of damaging their careers by being associated with this type of situation, Bolduc said.
There's also a concern that the perpetrators could try and obtain sensitive information from sailors or other service members.
NCIS encourages victims to maintain their communications with the perpetrators.
"Screen captures or printouts of the conversations or anything like that is always very helpful," NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said. "We have cyber agents who try to follow the electronic trail to get any information that's available.
"The prosecution is the problem because if this is offshore somewhere, it's almost impossible to prosecute."
Sailors should be wary of profiles with scant information and anybody who's very interested in their military career or status, and how quickly conversations become sexual in nature.
"We've seen minutes pass where individuals are undressing," Bolduc said.
Sailors who are victims of sextortion should inform their command, and also report the incident to NCIS directly, Bolduc said, "so that we can track it for trend purposes."
"It's very important to report so that we can identify ways to prosecute these individuals," she said.
In March alone, the NCIS distributed 109,000 pamphlets across its field offices worldwide with information about what sextortion is, what to look out for and how to protect against being victimized.
It's also held a number of briefings and crime-reduction campaigns.
NCIS is working with other organizations to create a Department of Defense-wide brochure, because the issue is affecting military members of all ranks and services, not just sailors.