WASHINGTON, D. C. – That girl from a neighboring high school who is chatting up your teenaged son on Facebook or Instagram may actually be a criminal from West Africa who will try to target him for blackmail, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned Monday.
Since May, U.S. law enforcement authorities have received more than 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors, with at least 3,000 victims, more than a dozen of whom have committed suicide, according to the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Some of the victims have been as young as 10 years old.
Typical targets of the scheme are boys aged 14 through 17, whom the criminals accost on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or gaming websites where young people feel comfortable. The scammers create online profiles that claim to be teenaged girls, often from nearby communities.
They may share explicit photographs purportedly of themselves before urging boys to send them a sexually explicit photograph or video. If a boy does so, they threaten to publicly expose the photo or video unless they receive money or gift cards. The shame, fear, and confusion that victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse, authorities say.
“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys — and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said a statement from FBI Director Christopher Wray.
His agency put out an alert to parents as children enter winter break and are likely to spend more time online.
“The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does,” Wray continued. “Victims may feel like there is no way out — it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.”
Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, describes the sextortion problem as a “growing crisis” that can “completely devastate children and families.”
“As the leading nonprofit focused on child protection, we’ve seen first-hand the rise in these cases worldwide,” said a statement from DeLaune. “The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they’re targeted online. We want everyone to know help is out there and they’re not alone.”
The agencies suggest that parents warn their children to “have a healthy skepticism” towards individuals they engage with online, and to recognize that anyone who asks them to engage in sexualized chats or image sharing, particularly early in a conversation or acquaintance, may have nefarious reasons. They say the criminals, who are often from West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, often seem to appear out of nowhere and rapidly turn the conversation to sharing explicit images and videos.
If young people are being exploited, the FBI says they are crime victims and should report it. They can reach their local FBI field office by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov. The FBI has made information, resources, and conversation guides about the problem available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has outlined steps parents and young people can take if they or their child are a victim of sextortion, including:
- Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.
- 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.
- Let NCMEC help get explicit images of you off the internet.
- Visit MissingKids.org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org to report to us for help with the process.
- Ask for help. This can be a very complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
- If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at email@example.com or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.