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Rapid Growth of Sextortion Targeting Teenage Boys Alarms Authorities

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a national public safety alert warning of the rapid growth of an online scheme targeting male teenagers. The perpetuators pose as young women and trick the boys into sending sexually explicit photos of themselves. Then they extort money from the boys by threatening to send the photos to friends and family and post online.

The FBI said law enforcement has received more than 7,000 reports of the so-called sextortion cases, with at least 3,000 victims, including cases that are linked to more than a dozen suicides.

“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys—and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does. Victims may feel like there is no way out—it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.”

The warning noted that many of the schemes originate overseas and have been linked to Nigeria and Ivory Coast. The Associated Press reported that suspects often use a girl’s profile photo and may list a local school or add friends to make it look like they live in the same area as the victim. The connections are made on common social media sites, including Instagram and Facebook, as well as gaming platforms or on video chats.

“This is a growing crisis and we’ve seen sextortion completely devastate children and families,” Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told the AP. “The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they’re targeted online.”

The crime is not isolated to the United States; last week the Calgary Herald ran a similar warning from Alberta police. “The Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams’ (ALERT) internet and child exploitation unit issued the warning this week saying they have been inundated with cases since March, saying more than a hundred southern Albertans having been victimized,” the news organization reported.

Last week, Los Angeles police arrested a man suspected of a sextortion case in San Jose, California. According to a CNN report, “the online perpetrator sent Ryan a romantic picture of a young female and asked for one of him in return. Immediately after Ryan shared an intimate photo of his own, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000, threatening to make the photo public and send it to Ryan’s family and friends, investigators said. Hours later, police said, a panicked Ryan took his own life.”

The report also said authorities believed the suspect had conducted the sextortion scheme multiple times, meaning several more victims may have been targeted.

Last month, Meta, the parent company to both Instagram and Facebook, announced efforts to try to limit sexually explicit material involving children:

We’re working with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to build a global platform for teens who are worried intimate images they created might be shared on public online platforms without their consent. This platform will be similar to work we have done to prevent the non-consensual sharing of intimate images for adults. It will allow us to help prevent a teen’s intimate images from being posted online and can be used by other companies across the tech industry.

WebMD has a page devoted to sextortion, detailing how to spot its signs and what to do if you or someone you know falls victim to the scheme. Among the grooming techniques WebMD describes include:

  • Start out by asking you for something small or harmless, like a regular photo of yourself.
  • Offer you gaming credit or virtual money in exchange for a photo.
  • Have multiple online profiles or accounts they use to contact you.
  • Threaten to hurt or kill themselves if you don’t cooperate with their demands.

“If you find yourself being sextorted, it can be frightening and take an emotional and physical toll. You may fear for your safety, or have feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, alone, and anxiousness. But it can happen to anyone and it’s not your fault,” WebMD advises. “You may feel trapped and believe there’s no way out of the situation other than giving in to your abuser’s demands. But don’t give them money or information. Sextortion is a preventable crime and there are ways for you to get help and support.”

WebMD advises the potential victims to tell someone they trust, block the abuser, take screenshots of the chats, report it to the websites or apps being used, and to call the FBI at 800-255-5324

Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or 800-273-8255) to connect with a trained counselor or visit the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service online.