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Verdict in Amanda Todd case spurs renewed calls to battle online sexual extortion

WARNING: This article contains details of sexual extortion and may affect those who have experienced it or know someone affected by it.

Parents and child protection experts are reflecting on Amanda Todd’s legacy and what must urgently happen to help keep kids safe online in the wake of a Dutch man’s conviction for sexually extorting the B.C. teenager, who took her own life as a result. 

For Derek Lints, Saturday’s guilty verdict against Aydin Coban “is unprecedented” and one he hopes inspires real change. 

“Our hope is with this conviction, it gives victims courage to come forward and to see that something can be done to help them,” he said.

Lints’s 17-year-old son, Daniel, died by suicide in February — only hours after becoming the victim of an online sexual extortion scheme perpetrated using Snapchat. 

“These people can be found and charged and convicted,” Lints, of Pilot Mound, Man., told CBC News in an interview following Coban’s conviction by a jury in New Westminster, B.C.

Coban was convicted of extortion, two counts of possession of child pornography, child luring and criminal harassment against Todd. The 15-year-old died by suicide on Oct. 10, 2012, after posting a video on YouTube saying she had been blackmailed by an online predator.

Coban was extradited from the Netherlands in 2020 to face the charges. He was not charged in connection with Todd’s death.

Todd’s mother, Carol Todd, said following the verdict that she believes the case has set a precedent showing people can be held to account for so-called “sextortion” no matter where they are in the world.

Lints said he was happy for Carol Todd “for persevering all these years” and seeing a verdict in her daughter’s case.

“We also hope that governments continue to seek ways of extraditing these people from ‘safe haven’ countries where they’re able to hunt children, basically with no repercussions,” he said.

Derek Lints’s son, Daniel, 17, took his own life in February after being sexually exploited online. Derek hopes the government continues efforts to find and extradite people who commit the crime. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Child-protection experts also expressed relief, saying the outcome of the criminal case sends a message.

“The fact that this man was brought to Canada … is really heartening to see and important because it shows that Canada took this very seriously and wanted to ensure our justice system was engaged,” said Monique St. Germain, general counsel for the Winnipeg-based Canadian Centre for Child Protection (CCCP).

Child ‘sextortion’ cases spiking

The verdict also comes at a time where the problem of online sexual extortion gains greater attention amid alarming statistics and warnings from police forces around the country. 

On Thursday, the CCCP released an analysis suggesting a stark rise in sextortion crimes targeting youth. The majority of victims are adolescent boys, the centre said. 

It opened 322 cases this July, compared to 85 in July 2021 and just 15 in July 2019. Of those 322 cases last month, 92 per cent involved boys or young men.

The RCMP’s National Child Exploitation Crime Centre received a total of 52,306 complaints for the year 2020-21 — a 510 per cent increase from seven years earlier. Experts have pointed to increasing online activity during the COVID-19 pandemic as a contributing factor.

More can be done to combat the crime, aside from relying on the criminal justice system, said St. Germain.

Online platforms need to be accountable and do more to keep kids safe, and governments need to move on enacting legislation addressing online harms, she said.

Stalking Amanda: The Man in the Shadows

The name of Amanda Todd became synonymous with cyber-bullying and loss after the B.C. teenager committed suicide. Mark Kelley of the fifth estate reveals the never before told story of her accused online stalker, the global police hunt for him and troubling questions about why the suspect wasn’t stopped before Amanda took her own life.

“The reality is that right now we have websites, apps and other things coming out into the marketplace without there really being a requirement for children’s safety to be taken into account into the design,” said St. Germain. 

Society wouldn’t allow a play structure in a park to be there without adequate safety precautions, and the online world shouldn’t be treated any differently, she added.

In July, the federal government announced it was restarting consultations on potential online harms legislation.

A group of academics that was tasked with studying the issue could not come to a consensus on several issues, including whether software companies should be forced to proactively monitor or remove harmful content, whether private messages should be included in the legislation, and how to define “harm” itself, according to a summary report of the group’s work. 

But time is of the essence in what is an urgent national problem, St. Germain said.

“Every day more children are being victimized,” she said.

“It is unacceptable that the burden of keeping our youth safe on the internet falls squarely on the shoulders of Canadian parents. Until governments and technology companies make immediate and swift changes to protect children online, history will repeat itself.” 

A date for Coban’s sentencing hearing will be set on Thursday.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you’re worried about.

Police also suggest the following to avoid falling victim to sexual extortion:

  • Never answer video calls from people you don’t know.

  • If you mistakenly connect with someone you don’t know over live stream, immediately hang up.

  • Always answer video calls with the camera turned off until you know the identity of the person calling.

Anyone who finds themselves targeted should immediately stop communicating with the suspected scammer and report it to police. Child exploitation can be reported online at www.cybertip.ca.

Police also say victims should not comply with threats, and should keep records of any correspondence with the perpetrator.

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