Parents in California need to know. According to the FBI, it’s the leading threat to children on the internet, but until just recently, it was specifically against the law in only four states. Beginning in 2018, however, sexual extortion will also be a specific crime in California under Senate Bill 500, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in October.

Precisely what is sexual extortion, how are our children and teens targeted, and what should parents know? If someone is charged with sexual extortion, what are that person’s legal options? And what are the specifics of the new law in California? Keep reading, and we’ll try to answer those questions one at a time. First, an explanation of the new law.

In 2017, most cases of sexual extortion involve predators obtaining sexually explicit images of a child and then extorting the child for more images, or for money or sex. Currently in California, and still in 45 other states, an alleged sexual extortionist might have to be charged with something like blackmail, child pornography, or child endangerment.

WHAT IS THE AIM OF THE NEW SEXUAL EXTORTION LAW?

But by making the new sexual extortion law precise and specific, California lawmakers allow prosecutors to pursue sexual extortionists with more confidence that they will win convictions. When the bill was signed, its sponsor in the California Legislature, Senator Connie Leyva of Chino, stated on her website, “The Governor’s signature of SB 500 tells sextortion victims that they matter and that they absolutely deserve to be able to receive justice in a court of law.”

SB 500 clarifies that extortion in California now includes not only extortion for money or property, but also extortion involving sexual images and acts. The new statute is not a substitute for other applicable laws, but rather it enhances the tools police agencies and prosecutors may use against sexual predators. Anyone charged with sexual extortion in southern California will need to contact an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney at once.

HOW DO SEXUAL EXTORTIONISTS OPERATE?

Sexual extortionists use several methods to obtain explicit sexual images of minors. They can pretend to be someone else online and simply ask for such images, sometimes coaxing and cajoling a child for weeks or even months. Or they hack into a victim’s computer or smartphone and simply steal already-existing private images.

In 2011, for example, a Los Angeles court sentenced Luis Mijangos to six years in federal prison. Mijangos hacked into dozens of computers owned by underage girls, stole nude images, and threatened to publish the pictures unless the girls provided him with more images. District Judge George H. King called the crime “cyberterrorism.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tells us that 78 percent of sexual extortion victims are teen girls whose average age is 15. Senator Leyva says the new law sends this message to sexual extortion victims: “We stand with you and we will protect you.”

ARE YOUR CHILDREN AT RISK?

Parents want to know if their own children are at risk, and the answer is yes. Child safety experts tell us that sexual extortionists prowl social media sites, chat rooms, and video game sites. They usually pretend they are teens, and they persuade their teen victims to share sexual images through messaging apps or video chats.

In other cases, after targeting a victim, an extortionist may acquire the images by hacking the victim’s phone or computer. Once he or she possesses sexually explicit photos or videos, the extortionist threatens to post the images on sites where the victim’s family and friends will see them, unless the victim provides the extortionist with more images or with sex or money.

In the 44 states with no sexual blackmail laws, authorities sometimes prosecute sexual extortionists under federal child pornography laws. In some states, prosecutors can use existing extortion laws. But in California law, extortion has been defined as the extortion of money or property, so it has been difficult to prosecute sexual extortionists under the existing law.

WHAT CAN HAPPEN TO THE VICTIMS OF SEXUAL EXTORTION?

Thus, the new law is a response by lawmakers to a growing concern. Published in 2015, an FBI study of 43 sexual extortion cases reported that two teen victims had committed suicide and that ten more made unsuccessful suicide attempts. Scores of other girls cut themselves, began using drugs or alcohol excessively, fell into depression, and/or began failing in school.

How widespread is sexual extortion? Reports to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s hotline were up 150 percent in early 2016 compared to the same period two years earlier. About 22 percent of the reported victims were boys, and the youngest victims were eight years old.

What’s most frightening is that because of the nature of the crime, there’s no accurate way to know how widespread sexual extortion – and the damage that accompanies it – really is. The presumption is that most victims don’t report sexual extortion because of shame and fear, which are precisely the factors that make the crime possible.

But what if someone is wrongly accused of sexual extortion under California’s new law? It’s a heinous crime, and parents demand action, so when police agencies investigate sexual extortion, they can sometimes be overzealous. Almost everyone has internet access, so conceivably almost anyone could be accused of sexual extortion.

Computer tampering isn’t difficult. Someone could also be wrongly accused of sexual extortion on the basis of a mistake or a misunderstanding. It’s also possible that an older teen might fabricate a sexual extortion accusation against an adult because of some kind of personal resentment or grudge.

WHEN DOES THE NEW LAW TAKE EFFECT? WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES?

The new statute will take effect on January 1, 2018. Extortion is a felony in California, punishable upon conviction, in most cases, by up to four years in a state prison and/or by a fine of up to $10,000. If you are accused of sexual extortion, it’s a serious legal matter, and you must have reliable, high-quality defense representation.

If you are charged with this crime in Southern California, exercise your right to remain silent, politely insist on your right to have an attorney present during questioning, and then reach out at once to an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney. Don’t try to explain anything to the police. Instead, let your attorney do the talking on your behalf.

It’s commendable that lawmakers in California are protecting our children from the criminals who would take advantage them. Everyone agrees that the vigorous enforcement of laws protecting children is imperative. Still, in California and every other state, prosecutors should never accuse the innocent unjustly, and police officers must never disregard anyone’s constitutional rights.