FBI tracking major uptick in teens targeted by online threat “sextortion”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Federal law enforcement agencies are sounding the alarm about a disturbing trend that could impact your teens online.


Officials say thousands of teenage boys are targeted to share explicit pictures and then they’re blackmailed for money. This kind of financial crime is known as sextortion.

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The FBI reports at least 3,000 children, mostly teenage boys, have become victims. The agency said these crimes are also connected to more than a dozen suicides this year alone.

Federal officials say these crimes begin where kids feel safe and comfortable and for many, that’s online. They say suspects often pose as young girls using fake accounts on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The target boys between 14 and 17 but the FBI says some victims are as young as 10 years old.

Authorities explain victims are then tricked into sending sexually explicit photos of themselves. According to law enforcement, once that happens, the suspect will threaten to release the compromising images unless they send money.

“What it does create is an extra layer of vulnerability and victimization. If and when that exploitation happens, teenage males may be less likely to come forward, to reach out for assistance to report to the authorities,” said Lauren Coffren, Executive Director, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children with families and teens in these situations. Coffren suggests talking with your kids about this possible threat even if the conversation is uncomfortable.

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“The best thing you can do is ask your child has this happened to anyone that you know, open up that dialogue, get them to start talking about,” Coffren. “They’ll probably tell you stories of who they’ve heard it happened to whether in their school or in a local school as well.”

Then Coffren said make plan.

“Start asking about what would you do if this occurred when you’re online? How would you help navigate your way out of it? Would you come talk to me? What would you say? These are prime opportunities to be able to work through not just a plan to prevent exploitation, but a plan to get out of it,” said Coffren.

The FBI believes most of these schemes are coming from outside the United States and originating in West Africa. They say this can make it difficult to identify suspects, but officials are investigating cases.

Coffren said there are also resources available to help you remove inappropriate images from social media.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of child sexual exploitation, you can call the national CyberTipLine. This number is 1-800-THE-LOST and someone is available 24/7.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has also outlined steps parents and young people can take including:

  • 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 and do not delete the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them.
  • Visit missingkids.org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org to get help with the process.
  • If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at gethelp@ncmec.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.
  • Learn how sextortion works and how to talk to your children about it. Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/sextortion.

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