FBI agents warn of ‘stunning’ sextortion scam targeting more than 3,000 minors

Washington – More than 3,000 teens and boys have been blackmailed online in what federal law enforcement officials have described as a “harrowing” sextortion scam that has been linked to more than a dozen underage suicides who were tricked into sending explicit images.

In a briefing with reporters Monday, FBI and Justice Department officials said a large proportion of sextortion crimes are motivated by “financial gain” rather than sex. Over the past year, authorities have received more than 7,000 reports related to the program, mostly from Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

The scam usually involves someone posing as a woman using a fake account and tricking the victim into sending explicit material which the scammer then threatens to release unless the victim sends money or gift card codes.

Overall, payments have reached millions of dollars, although each individual victim typically extorts thousands of dollars. “When you start adding up the thousands of children who have made payments, it shows a decent total,” an official said.

Federal law enforcement agencies have launched a “sextortion awareness campaign” in schools to warn children about the fraud ahead of the winter break, when many minors are spending more time online.

“We’ve seen that predators in this system generally target male children between the ages of 14 and 17, but I want to caution everyone that the FBI interviewed children as young as 10,” a senior FBI official said Monday . “This is a level of harassment that we haven’t seen in relation to our children in recent times.”

Tracking this type of large-scale sextortion can prove difficult as predators — who often live abroad and require extradition — take multiple steps to disguise their identities.

“What we usually see is individuals or bad actors using fake profiles or accounts and typically using female photos as profile pictures. They can set up their profiles to be geographically similar to the child victim in places. You can try to share similar interests,” said Lauren Coffren, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“At this point, [children are targeted] mostly on social media sites, on Instagram and Facebook,” said a senior DOJ official. “Once the initial contact is made, there is a movement of the minor to a secondary messaging platform” such as Snapchat or Google Hangouts.

Extortion scams often happen “within hours or even minutes” of initial contact, an official said, in contrast to other long-term online schemes.

The FBI has received approximately 4,500 leads related to this type of online sextortion. “The FBI is currently aware of an over 1,000% increase in incidents reported in the first six months of 2022 compared to the same period in 2021,” the senior FBI official said.

“Both youth and caregivers need to understand that a sex offender can bully a child or youth in their own home using devices they use to play games, do homework, and communicate with friends,” said Supervisor Special Agent Brian Herrick, deputy chief of the FBI’s violent crime section, said in a statement.

Recently, a couple appeared on “Dr. Phil” after their 15-year-old son Riley died by suicide after sextortionists posing as a girl named “Megan” persuaded him to share an explicit picture of himself online, then attempted to blackmail him for it thousands of dollars.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children advises parents and children to seek help before deciding whether to pay the racketeers. “Block the suspect, but DO NOT DELETE their profile or messages as this may help stop the extortionist,” the center advises.

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