FBI field offices are warning parents about increasing reports of adults posing as young girls coercing teenage boys through social media to produce sexual images and videos, then extorting money from the minor victims. This online scam has been going on for a long time, but it seems like there has been an uptick in activity this year. I usually get one or two calls every other month from a parent asking for guidance when they find out their child is a victim of sextortion.
In May 2022, I received six calls from frantic parents. Five were male victims and one female. All of the stories were incredibly similar. The victim, usually a male, 14 to 17 years old, receives an unsolicited message from a male adult posing as an attractive female on a social media platform like Instagram or Snapchat. Over days or weeks, the predator uses deception and manipulation to convince the victim to engage in sexually explicit activity over video or send them a nude image. Once the predator has received the photo or recording, they will attempt to extort a victim for money. A mother who called me for advice said she knew something was wrong when her 19-year-old son ran out of the house weeping. She confronted him, and he confessed he had shared a nude image with someone online, and now they wanted $1000. He tried to borrow the money from friends, but he only had been able to raise $70. In a recent tragic case, Ryan Stuart, a 17-year-old straight-A student and Boy Scout committed suicide hours after being scammed in a sextortion case. The scammer demanded $5000, threatening to make the photo public and send it to Ryan’s family and friends.
Medical experts say there’s a key reason why young males are especially vulnerable to sextortion-related scams. “Teen brains are still developing,” said Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Mass General in Boston. “So when something catastrophic happens, like a personal picture is released to people online, it’s hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the big scheme of things, they’ll be able to get through this.” This, coupled with the increase in mental health issues since the COVID-19 pandemic, makes this even more worrisome. The number of suicides among adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 increased in five states during the pandemic, according to research looking at 14 states published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on Monday.
How Do I Talk With My Child About Sexting?
As always, remain calm and don’t lecture. While on the Hostage Negotiation Team for my police agency, I learned a powerful technique to gain understanding and compliance from those who may not be interested in complying – ask questions and be an active listener. Your tone should denote a desire to know what your child thinks.
- Why do some kids sext? How big of a deal is it?
- Are there safer ways to show someone you trust and care about them?
- Do you think a photo on the internet will remain private and anonymous forever?
- How could that kind of image affect you or your future?
Your discussion’s ultimate goal is to change the way your child thinks about sexting and to have them consider the long-term consequences of their behavior. In the emotionally charged moment when a teen chooses to take and send a nude picture, they may be unable to pause and consider the consequences. We know talking to children about making good choices makes a difference, so don’t give up.
You should cover the following topics when you are talking to your teen about sexting.
Sexting Could Be a Crime
Nude or partially nude images of minors can be a crime. They might be considered child pornography.
A Sent Image Belongs to Everyone
Begin by discussing with your child that you can never get the image back once it is sent. The image is out there forever, and you have no control over what happens to it.
Talk about pressures to send or ask for revealing pictures.
Let your child know there might come a time when someone asks them for an intimate image. Tell them that no matter how significant the social pressure is, the potential social humiliation can be hundreds of times worse.
Sharing an Intimate Image with a Stranger is Not Safe
Talk to your child about the sextortion scam. Read the story above to them to illustrate how the scammers operate. Remind your child that no matter how embarrassed they may be, they can always come to you and ask for help.
Sharing an Intimate Image with Someone You Trust is Not Safe
I received an email from a recent college graduate applying for jobs and internships. She was anxious and hopeful to start the next chapter of her life in a career she was passionate about. She had promising interviews but was receiving rejection emails. She learned that a Google search of her name revealed a website with nude photos of her. This was a photo she had given her ex-boyfriend when they were still dating. She contacted the website and demanded they remove the image. They offered to remove the picture for $5000. She asked me if law enforcement could help. The website was hosted in another country. United States laws could not help her get the photo removed.
We live in a world where most college scholarship committees and businesses check their applicants’ public social media or Google search results. The potential long-term risks are real. It is worth considering the likelihood that an image will not remain private.
Get Alerts if Your Child is Being Targeted by Online Predators
I have been using a great app on my children’s mobile phones called Bark. It is available on iPhone or Android devices. It is incredibly easy to use and helps me stay on top of my boys’ digital world wherever they are.
Bark proactively monitors text messages, YouTube, emails, and 24 different social networks for potential safety concerns, so busy parents can save time and gain peace of mind.
Use cybersafetycop in Bark’s coupon code to get a free one-week trial and 15% off your subscription forever.
The FBI provides the following tips to protect you and your children online:
- Be selective about what you share online, especially your personal information and passwords. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you or your children.
- Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
- Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on a game or app and ask them to start talking to you on a different platform.
- Encourage children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.
If you believe you or someone you know is the victim of sextortion:
- Contact local law enforcement or the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov.
- Do not delete anything on your device before law enforcement can review it.
- Tell law enforcement everything about the encounters you had online; it may be embarrassing, but it is necessary to find the offender and can protect other children.
In 2021, IC3 received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints, with losses of more than $13.6 million. More information about sextortion can be found at www.fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor or visit the NSPL site.
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