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FBI warns of explosion of ‘sextortion’ cases targeting boys, teens

Law enforcement officials said they have directly linked at least 12 suicides to cases involving online demands for explicit photos

The Justice Department says thousands of teens and young boys are being targeted by online predators seeking sexually explicit photos and then demanding ransom to not release them. (iStock)
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Federal law enforcement officials warned Monday of an explosion of “sextortion” cases targeting teenagers and young boys, saying the online schemes have been linked to at least 12 suicides this year.

Officials issued a public safety alert urging parents and children to remain vigilant online ahead of the holiday break, when many children spend more time at home and online and could be vulnerable to people contacting them, asking for sexually explicit photos and threatening to release the images unless a ransom is paid.

In a news release, the FBI and the Justice Department said a large portion of the sextortion crimes originate in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast and are driven by “financial gain,” not sex — a fact that a Justice Department official said makes this trend different from other child exploitation crimes that have historically been motivated by sexual attraction to minors.

The official, and an FBI official, spoke on the condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules set at a background briefing.

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In the past year, authorities have received more than 7,000 reports related to sextortion and confirmed about 3,000 minor victims in the country, the Justice Department said. These children are contacted on social media platforms by someone using a fake account and typically posing as female. They set their location to be somewhere near the victims and ask the boys to send sexually explicit photos, then threaten to release the illicit images unless a ransom is paid.

Most of the boys targeted are between the ages of 14 and 17, though officials say they have identified victims as young as 10. The entire interaction — from the point contact is made to when money is demanded — can unfold in just hours.

“This is a level of harassment we haven’t seen recently in regards to our children,” the FBI official said.

Officials did not disclose how much money has been collected in the sextortion schemes but described them as “successful,” with one official saying that is “why it is happening on the scale that it is.” Still, they said, in many instances the extortioners release the images even if payments are made.

Prosecution of this type of online fraud is difficult, the Justice Department said, because it’s challenging to track down the identity of the predator. And pursuing the cases can be even more complicated in cases when the suspects live abroad and would need to be extradited to be held accountable. But the issue has been receiving more attention.

In October, the “Dr. Phil” television show featured parents of a child who was extorted and died by suicide.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has issued steps parents and children can take if they are victims of sextortion. They urged children to seek help before deciding whether to pay the extortioners. They also said parents and children should block the account of the predator, but not delete any communication, because those messages may be helpful to law enforcement investigations.