“Sextortion” cases are increasing sharply in teenagers


The FBI sounded the alarm Monday over an explosion in teenagers being assaulted online and extorted for money after they were tricked into sending sexually explicit images.

At least 3,000 children, mostly teenage boys, have been victims of the programs, which have been linked to more than a dozen suicides this year, a magnitude never seen by US authorities before, Justice Department officials said. Many think they are chatting online with children their own age, but are quickly manipulated into sending explicit images and then extorted money with threats to post the images, the FBI said.

Most victims are between the ages of 14 and 17, but children as young as 10 have been targeted.

The FBI said it is now issuing the national public safety alert because children may be spending more time online as schools close for the winter break.

Reports have increased tenfold since last year, and there are likely more victims who never came forward, FBI officials said. Embarrassment and shame can keep them from asking for help.

Most victims are between the ages of 14 and 17, although children as young as 10 have been targeted.
UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“Victims may feel like there is no way out — it’s up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, that there is hope and that they are not alone,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in one Explanation.

Many of the current programs are believed to be from scammers based in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Suspects typically pose as children of similar ages, often use a girl’s profile picture, and even list schools or add friends to make it appear they live in the same area. It often happens on major platforms like Instagram or Facebook, but can also occur during games or video chats, authorities said.

A girl is using a phone
Reports have increased tenfold since last year.
Getty Images

The alert is intended to put the spotlight on the issue so children can feel more comfortable speaking up and adults can help them spot fake identities and reject anyone who asks for explicit images, said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite of the Justice Department criminal department.

The Department of Homeland Security is also working to trace fake accounts back to their source, said Steve Francis, the acting executive director of Homeland Security Investigations. It’s not clear if federal prosecutors had brought any cases related to the scams.

Tactics by the backers of the fake accounts are becoming increasingly aggressive, sometimes asking for photos within minutes, and cases have risen worldwide, advocates said.

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

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