Social media extortion could be a new crime in Washington state

  • By Madeline Coats WNPA Olympia 
News Bureau
  • Thursday, February 21, 2019 12:11pm
  • News

By Madeline Coats

WNPA Olympia News Bureau

OLYMPIA — State senators aim to make social media extortion a crime punishable as a class C felony.

Senate Bill 5495 is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of four senators and introduced by Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup.

The idea for the bill began with the online extortion of a local restaurant in Puyallup, said Zeiger at a public hearing Tuesday.

The restaurant owner had just opened a new establishment last spring when the website and Facebook page were bombarded with a series of negative reviews, he said.

According to the senator, the reviews did not seem credible and appeared to come from fake accounts. It was later discovered via a private Facebook message that an offshore Romanian blackmail campaign was requesting $900 from the restaurant owner in exchange for the removal of bad reviews, Zeiger said.

SB 5495 defines extortion as threatening an owner by knowingly obtaining property or services. Threats are described as attempting to acquire property from a person or entity in return for removing negative social media communications.

Extortion in the second degree is a Class C felony, the bill says. Punishment for a Class C conviction may result in a sentence of at least five years or a maximum fine up to $10,000, according to chapter 9A.20 RCW.

“This is not the kind of crime that law enforcement is used to dealing with on a regular basis, nor is it a crime that social media platforms are necessarily equipped to deal with,” Zeiger said.

As referenced in the bill, there is a rebuttable presumption that negative social media communications are untrue when a person demands property in return for removing comments or reviews.

A social media provider must remove negative communications within 24-hours of a police report filed with law enforcement alleging social media extortion, and a copy of the threat.

The goal of SB 5495 is not to open the door for all kinds of businesses that might want to have negative reviews removed, Zeiger said.

“Cyber crime is a growing challenge with real impacts on small businesses in our state, like the restaurant in Puyallup, and we need thoughtful legal solutions to allow us to tackle cyber extortion head on,” Zeiger said.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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