What is sextortion? How to protect kids online as FBI warns of rising threat to minors

The FBI is warning of a rising threat targeting children and teens online called sextortion.

The scheme involves an adult manipulating a minor into sending explicit photos or videos of themselves — often by posing as a minor to gain a child or teen’s trust before threatening to expose them, according to the FBI. The exposure threat is typically accompanied by a demand for money from the victim.

“Predators who ask for sexually explicit photos, videos, and then money to terrorize young victims with threats of posting their images online are incredibly disturbing, and on our radar,” Special Agent in Charge Joseph R. Bonavolonta of the FBI’s Boston Division said in a statement on April 27.

As reports of these crimes increase, here’s how to protect minors online from sextortion:

Awareness

The best way to protect a child or teen from sextortion is making them aware the online threat exists and that “this crime is happening,” the FBI advises. Additionally, they need to understand how it happens.

This means “having important — and sometimes difficult — conversations with the young people in our lives,” Special Agent James A. Tarasca of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office said in a statement.

While any minors can become a victim, young boys and teens, typically ages 13 to 17, are being specifically targeted to produce explicit content by predators who often pretend to be a girl similar to their age, the FBI warns. The perpetrator can initiate the scheme through any online means, including gaming platforms, an app or through social media.

“The FBI is receiving an increasing number of reports of adults posing as young girls coercing young boys through social media to produce sexual images and videos and then extorting money from them,” the agency said April 27.

Officials said a recent sextortion case resulted in a 17-year-old dying of “an apparent suicide” less than six hours after he was targeted in the scheme on March 25, McClatchy News previously reported.

The Michigan teen communicated on Instagram with an extortionist who obtained explicit images of him and threatened to share the photos with his family, friends and social media followers unless they received money, officials said. He was under “extreme pressure,” according to law enforcement.

“To make the victimization stop, children typically have to come forward to someone — normally a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement,” the FBI Boston said in a news release.

However, “the embarrassment children feel from the activity they were forced to engage in is what typically prevents them from coming forward.”

The FBI advises parents and caregivers to emphasize how easy it is for potential predators to pretend to be someone else online and how contact from a stranger could be fueled by bad intentions.

Additionally, it’s important for minors to remember “nothing ‘disappears’ online,” the FBI says.

More tips

Parents and caregivers can consider making certain rules when it comes to a child’s internet or social media use in an effort to protect them.

“You may choose to place certain limits on your children’s Internet use or spot check their phones and other devices to see what applications they are using and with whom they are communicating,” the FBI says. “It also may be worth considering a rule against devices in bedrooms overnight or shutting off Wi-Fi access in the overnight hours.”

Additionally, parents and caregivers may want to advise minors under their care to keep their online accounts private to prevent strangers from easily accessing their information.

Ultimately, it’s important for parents and guardians to stress that a minor can and should come to them for help, especially given the embarrassment sextortion can cause, according to the FBI.

“These predators are powerful because of fear,” the FBI says.

If you’re child is being sextorted

A victim of sextortion should immediately stop answering the extortionist no matter their threats and tell someone trusted what is happening, according to New York law firm CA Goldberg.

It’s important to not delete any communications so there is evidence of the crime, the firm advises. Then, law enforcement should be notified.

The FBI advises letting them know about the sextortion by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or going online to report it at tips.fbi.gov.

Coming forward to law enforcement may stop sextortion offenders from harming more potential victims, according to FBI Detroit.

“If you are a victim and don’t feel comfortable reporting directly to law enforcement, we encourage you to reach out to a trusted adult, who can help you,” Tarasca said. “Your brave decision to come forward can not only help us identify the criminal but could also prevent another young person from being victimized.”

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