Duquesne fights against sextortion through an educational town hall

Delaney Kraus | Staff Photgrapher | Panelists Brooklynn Riordan (left), Jim Maskell (middle left), Ann Lahoda (middle right) and Sherene Brantley (right).

Emily Ambery | Layout Editor

United States law enforcement received over 7,000 reports related to online sextortion in 2022, according to the FBI. Sextortion is a crime in which a perpetrator threatens to expose sexually compromising information unless the victim meets specific demands.

Duquesne University hosted a town hall meeting about sextortion in the Power Center ballroom Wed. Sept. 6, where students learned about how to identify and prevent it, as well as what campus resources are available.

This event is part of ongoing efforts to provide public safety education at Duquesne.

Last year, at fireside chats with the Chief, the university had previously discussed the topic but it remains relevant, especially for young people.

The town hall featured a panel of campus and community members who provided information on the crime and what students can do to mitigate it.

The panel, moderated by Director of Public Safety and Police Chief Eric Holmes, included FBI special agents Brooklynn Riordan and Jim Maskell, Ann Lahoda, assistant vice president of residence life and Sherene Brantley, deputy Title IX coordinator.

“We thought with the new year and new students, we would revisit this topic,” Holmes said.

“With the advent of social media, different types of crimes are present, and this is one of them.”

Student attendance at the event was low, but panelists stressed the importance of sextortion awareness in preventing future crime.

Both traditional sextortion and financial sextortion are on the rise in Pittsburgh, given its higher population of younger and elderly individuals who are typically victims of these crimes, according to Riordan. She said over 3,000 cases of financial crime were reported by individuals under 19 in 2022, resulting in more than $10 million in losses.

She also said that many victims are international students receiving false threats of deportation if not compliant with demands.

“Report it quickly, and don’t be afraid to report. Then lock up all your accounts: change passwords, cancel credit cards and close bank accounts,” Riordan said.

The panelists advocated for vigilance in online interactions or suspicious phone calls, urging the audience to verify information.

Panelist Maskell described the “take a breath test,” a method to slow down and assess what information is being requested and why.

“If you get a phone call or a message, call back the official number on the website and verify what is being said,” Maskell said.

Alicia Simpson, Title IX coordinator and director of sexual misconduct prevention & response, echoed the event’s timeliness and importance.

“The crime of sextortion is increasing in frequency across the United States and primarily targeting teenagers and young college-aged adults,” Simpson said in an email.

Attendee and graduate leadership student Ameka Menes said she thought it would be interesting to get law enforcement’s perspective on sextortion and how to help prevent it.

“It’s good to hear about what I can do to help myself or my younger friends if they’re ever in a situation like this,” Menes said.

The panel talked about the prominent role social media plays in sextortion, especially in apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook Messenger.

“A sextortion scam can start out friendly by someone sending a DM about having a mutual friend. The scam can occur over the span of several days or weeks, and the blackmailer may also offer promises of reciprocation [like] I’ll show you, if you show me,'” Simpson said.

Duquesne has resources for students who may be a victim of sextortion. Students can contact Public Safety at 412.396.2677, report to the FBI tip line, ic3.gov, speak with the Office of Residence Life, or visit the Title IX Office.

“It is important for anyone who has been a victim of sextortion to know that it is not their fault, and they are not alone,” Simpson said.

“To stop sextortion, you should take control of the situation, stop responding to messages immediately [and] never pay the blackmailer any money.