According to the DOJ, more than 3,000 US minors were targeted for sextortion crimes last year

A hooded man representing a cybercriminal.

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After a dramatic increase in incidents over the past year, federal law enforcement officials are cracking down on a program aimed at extorting sexual imagery from children and young people.

Sexual predators threaten, blackmail or seduce minors through “sextortion,” a portmanteau of “sex” and “blackmail,” in which they demand sexually explicit content or money from a child against their will, according to a Justice Department advisory released Tuesday. Victims as young as 10 years old were targeted.

Over 3,000 minors were targeted in the United States last year, the DOJ said.

The crime is a subset of online lure, which increased 98% from 2019 to 2020, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The NCMEC issued a public safety alert about sextortion Tuesday in cooperation with the US Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Department of Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI’s Pittsburgh office.

“These criminals have gotten very good at luring and blackmailing young children,” Mike Nordwall, the FBI Pittsburgh special agent in charge, said in a statement. “They’re trying to hide behind the anonymity of the internet, but the FBI won’t let them exploit our children.”

Sextortion is rampant online, where predators often pose as children or teenagers to gain their victims’ trust, before coaxing them into sharing sexual content, such as photos or videos, according to federal officials. According to the warning, predators will even lie if they have sexual images in order to blackmail victims for more content, cash or gift cards under threats to release the images.

According to federal officials, a predator sometimes shares images regardless of whether a victim is making payment demands. The toll on the victim can lead to shame, fear, confusion and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. Amanda Todd, the subject of a new documentary on sextortion and the target of the practice when she was only 13, committed suicide two years later.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988.

Law enforcement officials say prevention is the best weapon against sextortion. NCMEC provides resources for carers and educators on crime. The sextortion cycle generally ends when a victim tells an adult or the perpetrator is discovered by law enforcement.

“It is vitally important to provide parents and carers with the information they need to prevent this crime before it happens and to help victims come forward if they do,” she said US Attorney Cindy K. Chung in a statement. “We will continue to work with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to protect children from sexual exploitation in all its despicable forms.”

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