(AP/Damian Dovarganes)

For years, if your intimate photos appeared online without your permission, there appeared to be little recourse. The images spread on the Web while those responsible for posting them often went unpunished.

But that seems to be changing.

Government officials are more aggressively pursuing people who leak such images and the Web sites set up to profit from them. Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have passed laws criminalizing nonconsensual pornography. Essentially, the long war against revenge porn is finally getting results.

"We've made huge progress," said Charlotte Laws, a prominent activist who became involved in fighting nonconsensual porn after a topless photo of her daughter was posted to a site run by Hunter Moore, one of the most notorious revenge porn site operators.

Moore is now the latest example of how the government is taking the issue more seriously: He pleaded guilty to federal hacking and identity theft charges Wednesday and faces a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Moore was a pioneer in this seedy underbelly of the Web, raking in money from advertisers through a site that hosted nude or sexually explicit photos of people without their consent — sometimes pairing the images with details about the victims' identities. Some of the photos were submitted by former romantic partners out for revenge, but Moore pleaded guilty to paying a conspirator to steal compromising photos from victims by breaking into their e-mail accounts.

His site shut down in 2012 but became a model for an entire industry that in some cases involved extorting victims desperate to get their images taken offline.

Web developer Kevin Bollaert ran one such scheme. Bollaert ran a revenge porn site but also set up a second that charged up to $350 per person to remove photos from the first site, prosecutors said.  He was found guilty on more than three dozen counts of identity theft and extortion earlier this month by a court in California. He's now facing up to 20 years in prison.

“Bollaert’s actions are illegal and they will not be tolerated in California," state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris said in a statement at the time. "Just because you’re sitting behind a computer, committing what is essentially a cowardly and criminal act, you will not be shielded from the law or jail.”

The FTC has also gotten involved, filing a complaint against Craig Brittain, who ran the now-defunct IsAnyBody.com and an alleged extortion racket. Brittain agreed to a settlement last month under which he must delete all the images he collected and never operate a revenge porn site again.

Publicly posting an intimate photo taken during a relationship and shared in private is often illegal, but it can be both financially and emotionally taxing for victims to get help, legal experts say.

Victims can sue the person who leaked the images and 16 states now have criminal cyberstalking or harassment laws that criminalize such situations, she said. That's a significant improvement since 2004 when New Jersey first passed legislation addressing revenge porn, according to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and author of the book "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace." Federal cyberstalking law may also apply if the person share the images online repeatedly, she said.

But federal law enforcement agencies often don't prioritize revenge porn cases, said Citron, and even victims who approach local law enforcement may have a tough time getting them to take their cases seriously even if they live in a state with a specific law on the books.

"Law enforcement often doesn't get the technology and doesn't want to admit that — and they also often don't understand the law," Citron said.

Victims may also end up being shamed by the same people they turn to for help, according to advocates. "This is another form of sexual abuse and assault — and we see the same sort of issues when it comes to investigating it," said Holly Jacobs, who founded a group called the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative that focuses on nonconsensual pornography after she says her own private images ended up online without her consent. (Citron is one the initiative's advisers.)

"There's victim blaming involved," Jacobs said. "When women come in and say they took or shared nude photos, police subconsciously or consciously blame them for it."

Laws said she encountered resistance when she first tried to get law enforcement involved with her daughter's case. Though her daughter took an intimate selfie, she hadn't shared it with anyone — only e-mailing it to herself.

Then days after her Facebook and e-mail account were hacked, the photos showed up online along with details about her location and links to her social media profiles. The Los Angeles Police Department wasn't helpful, Laws said, who then went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At first, the FBI told her to file a complaint online — only agreeing to send officers to meet with her after she complained it wasn't being taken as seriously as leaks of celebrity nudes, she said.

Even then, the investigators didn't seem enthused about investigating her daughter's case until Laws handed over a cache of research linking the hacks to an e-mail used by Charles Evens, the man Moore has now pleaded guilty to paying for nude photos stolen from compromised e-mail accounts, according to Laws. Five out of the seven victims in the indictments against Moore and Evens came from her research, she said.

Laws said she struggled to figure out how to help her daughter, but things are getting better.  She now sits on CCRI's board, and the organization runs a 24/7 hotline for victims and a Web site, EndRevengePorn.org, that includes information about their legal options. The group has also advocated for more laws criminalizing the sharing of intimate photographs without permission.

But going after sites hosting such content remains difficult. Under a 1990s Internet law called the Communications Decency Act, Web site operators cannot generally be held responsible for things users post — leaving a legal gray area for sites that don't specifically solicit users to submit illicit content, according to Citron.

In the Bollaert and FTC cases, operators primarily got in trouble for attempting to get money from victims who wanted images taken down, not for hosting them in the first place. Moore, similarly, pleaded guilty to criminal hacking and identity theft charges rather than getting in trouble specifically for running a site hosting revenge porn.

Experts worry the next generation of site owners will learn from their predecessors' mistakes. "The next Hunter Moore will be more clever about this," said Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami's law school who sits on the Board of CCRI.  And there's still more work to be done.

"There are thousands out there having images shared without their consent," said Franks, and punishing perpetrators doesn't undo the harm to victims. "Even if someone goes to jail, it doesn't mean that the images are going to be removed from the Internet," she explained. Some victims have luck using copyright law to remove the images, but it can be a grueling process — and it's often near impossible to remove every trace of them from the Internet.

Still, the recent developments represent a victory for those fighting against nonconsensual pornography — and Moore's guilty plea is a personal victory for Laws, who is now gathering stories from victims to share at his sentencing hearing.

"I'm very pleased with the FBI's work on this," she said.