Children and teens are too often coerced into sending explicit images online and extorted for money, according to an alert issued by the FBI.
The crime is known as financial sextortion.
The FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children have issued the alert.
In 2022, law enforcement received more than 7,000 reports related to online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, as was as more than a dozen suicides, the alert says.
More victims, afraid to come forward, are not included in the known numbers, FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
A large percentage of sextortion schemes originate outside of the United States, primarily from West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
The FBI and partners implore parents and caregivers to talk with their kids about financial sextortion schemes to prevent them in the first place, FBI spokeswoman Amy Adams said.
Financial sextortion schemes occur online, in environments where young people feel most comfortable. Sextortion often occurs via social media sites, gaming sites, or video chat applications that feel familiar and safe.
On these platforms, online predators use fake female accounts to target minor males, usually ages 14-17. The FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10 years old.
Through deception, predators convince the young person to produce an explicit video or photo. Once predators acquire the images, the blackmailers threaten to release compromising material unless the victim sends money or gift cards.
Often, the predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer applications. In many cases, however, predators release the images even if payments are made, the FBI alert says.
The shame, fear, and confusion that victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.
“The protection of children is a society’s most sacred duty,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. “It calls on each of us to do everything we can to keep kids from harm, including ensuring the threats they face are brought into the light and confronted.”
Polite said parents, caregivers, and children themselves should arm themselves with the information in this alert message, detect fake identities, take steps to reject any attempt to obtain private material, and if targeted, have a plan to seek help from a trusted adult.
“The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they’re targeted online. We want everyone to know help is out there and they’re not alone,” said Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “As the leading nonprofit focused on child protection, we’ve seen first-hand the rise in these cases worldwide.”
“The sexual exploitation of children is a deplorable crime. HSI special agents will continue to exhaust every resource to identify, locate, and apprehend predators to ensure they face justice,” said Steve K. Francis, HSI Acting Executive Associate Director.
“Criminals who lurk in platforms on the internet are not as anonymous as they think. HSI will continue to leverage cutting-edge technology to end these heinous acts,” Francis said.
If you or your child is a victim
- Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.
- Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.
- Report the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
- Block the predator. However, do not delete the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them.
- Let the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children help get explicit images off the internet.
- Visit org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org to report to us for help with the process.
- Ask for help. This can be a complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
- If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at email@example.com or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.
Take a moment to learn how sextortion works and parents, talk to your children about it.
Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
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