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Assembly panel advances bill making ‘sextortion’ a crime

Lawmakers took another step toward making it a crime to use sexual images to extort victims during a committee hearing Thursday.

Known as sextortion, it can involve someone hacking into a person’s computer or phone to steal sexual images and threaten to distribute them, or coercing a victim into taking explicit photos or videos and then using them to demand more. The bill (A343) would make it a third-degree crime.

The crime would carry a penalty of three to five years of prison, a maximum $15,000 fine, or both. If the victim is a minor or an adult with a developmental disability, it would be a second-degree crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $150,000 fine.

There’s been a rapid rise in sexual extortion in the digital age, but gaps in federal and state laws remain. Just 17 states and Washington, D.C., have laws banning sexual extortion, said Jennifer Becker, legal director and senior attorney at Legal Momentum.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the FBI have both reported seeing a dramatic increase — nearly double — in sextortion cases. Teenage boys have become the most common targets of financial sextortion, where the blackmailer demands money. FBI said in December that more than a dozen minor victims of this crime died by suicide.

“Victims can be so humiliated and traumatized by the experience that they take their own lives. So, in addition to parents having conversations with their children about online safety, prosecutors need the tools to properly punish predators and stop these crimes,” said Assemblywoman Aura Dunn (R-Morris), prime sponsor of the bill.

Some children think they are chatting online with other kids their age but are then manipulated into sharing explicit content and being blackmailed for money. Other victims have their images hacked or recorded without their consent and feel they have no option but to comply, Becker said.

“Every time a victim is forced to create or produce sexually explicit images against their will or meet in person to engage in sexual conduct, that person is sexually assaulted, and they suffer the same harm as any other form of sex crime,” Becker said during her testimony to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

It can also lead to other forms of victimization and give human traffickers new tactics to coerce and gain power over victims.

As in many states currently, sexual extortion doesn’t fit with New Jersey’s existing laws or sexual assault framework, but lawmakers now have the chance to use a “simple legislative fix” to correct that, Becker said.

“Many perpetrators believe they are shielded from prosecution by the law that just hasn’t kept pace with the digital nature of our world, and in many respects, they have been,” Becker said.

The bill’s Senate companion has yet to receive a floor vote. The Assembly bill advanced unanimously and heads to the full chamber for a vote.

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