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Beware of extortionists using #MeToo backdrop for financial gain: Webb

Toronto criminal lawyer Melanie Webb says she has witnessed an increase in extortion attempts coinciding with the emergence of the #MeToo movement.

"I’m seeing more men who are victims of blackmail and extortion attempts," Webb, principal of Melanie J. Webb Barrister, tells AdvocateDaily.com. "They are being wrongfully accused of sexual assault by complainants threatening to go to police or expose them to their families or colleagues. 

“Many of these men are professionals or have a high profile.”

While sexual assault is always a criminal matter for the police, in these extortion cases, it’s not always just the threat of charges the blackmailer wields, she says. It’s also the spectre of public shaming.

The claims run the gamut of assault, sexual assault, sexual contact with an underage person or verbal sexual harassment, Webb says.

“These men are attractive targets,” she says, noting extortionists may prey on people in bars or online. “These victims may have good jobs, drive expensive cars and live in nice houses. It isn’t hard to find out about people using the internet and social media.”

The extortionist may also threaten to out a secret sexual preference or that their victim has had an extramarital affair. But in many cases, the extortion doesn’t always stop when they’ve been paid, Webb says.

“They often come back for more. Anyone in this situation should contact a lawyer and set up an interview.”

She says it may take a few hours to sit down with a lawyer and establish the narrative and timeline of events, but it is time well spent.

“Counsel can then lay out their options, whether they go to the police preemptively or lay low and see what happens,” Webb says. “In either case, they should gather and preserve all the evidence possible.

"It’s crucial for counsel to tabulate all text messages, emails, and voice messages along with any receipts from places they may have frequented, explore whether there are any relevant witnesses, and see if there is any video surveillance available," she advises. 

“It’s important to do this while the events are still fresh in their mind and to ensure that relevant evidence isn’t lost,” Webb says. “They may also decide to retain a private investigator who, with a little digging, can identify those responsible.

“It’s probably not the first time they’ve done this, and it probably won’t be the last.”

It’s also vital to work with a lawyer who understands the Criminal Code, to capture the narrative and the evidence regardless of whether the extortionist ultimately goes to the police, she says.

“Sometimes they just give up and move on to an easier target. But if they do go to the police, you want to be prepared.”

Having the evidence gathered and ready also makes it easier if the decision is to contact police with a complaint before the extortionist acts. Webb says police can get warrants to obtain cellphone records and strip them of their most powerful weapon — anonymity.

"Victims are often unsettled, if not terrified, by such threats," she adds, and extortionists may up the ante by calling their place of work and talking to assistants or posting on the company social media platforms.

“An investigation by defence counsel can take time, but you want it done right,” Webb says. “You want to ensure that you can establish that chronology of events while you still have a recent memory of it, not three months after the fact. And you want to make an informed decision as to how to deal with it. That’s why you should speak with a lawyer if you are facing this type of situation.”

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