Citing an “explosion” of online sextortion cases involving children, federal authorities Monday issued an unusual national public safety alert in an attempt to intervene in increasingly aggressive schemes linked to more than a dozen suicides in the past year.
At least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, have been identified as targets in operations largely originating outside the U.S., in which children are being coerced into sending explicit images online and then extorted for money.
Federal officials, describing “desperate” accounts from young victims, said the number of incidents in the first six months of 2022 represented a 1,000% increase from the same period last year.
On a variety of online platforms, from gaming and social media sites to chatrooms, predators are often using fake female accounts to target boys, between 14 to 17 years old. Some victims are as young as 10, the FBI said.
A large portion of the schemes are being traced to the West African countries of Nigeria and Ivory Coast, officials said.
The FBI, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, issued the alert in advance of the holidays urging parents to intercede as children are expected to spend more time online, away from the classroom.
FBI Director Christopher Wray described the surge of incidents as “a horrific increase,” which does not account for the untold number of victims who “are afraid to come forward.”
“Victims may feel like there is no way out,” Wray said. “It is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.”
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr., chief of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, called on parents and caregivers to assist in detecting fake identities and counsel children to “reject any attempt to obtain private material.”
Typically, officials said, the predators have been convincing their targets to provide videos or photos. When transmitted, the offenders threaten to release the compromising material unless the victims send money or gift cards through a variety of payment applications.
The pressure campaigns, officials said, often begin within minutes of transmission of the photos or videos. Typically, demands involve hundreds of dollars or even more. Some of the victims have sought help from their parents to assist with the payments, while the most desperate have taken their own lives out of shame.
“This is a growing crisis and we’ve seen sextortion completely devastate children and families,” said Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they’re targeted online.”
The FBI urged victims and their families to report the illicit contacts, either by calls to local field offices or the bureau’s tip line at 1-800-CALL-FBI. The reports also can be made online at tips.fbi.gov.
Before acceding to extortion demands, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said victims and their families should seek counsel.
“Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment,” the group said, adding that help is available to remove images from the internet.
The FBI said the recent jump in such incidents stands apart, distinguished by its predominate focus on young boys – rather than older victims – and the expedited extortion process.
Officials described instances in which panicked victims were “waking up parents” to help them either make payments or respond to the online offenders.
If you or anyone you know is in a digital crisis, please call Smart Gen Society or the correct authorities.