Sextortion’s scourge victimizing East Valley kids | News | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

Two East Valley moms said there was a key moment when they had to look at their son and let him know that no matter what, they had his back. That was the moment they stopped being victims of sextortion, and went on the offensive.

Sextortion is a growing problem nationally and across the Valley. 

Online predators, many believed to be overseas, seek out children on social media platforms, pretending to be someone near the same age and of the opposite sex. 

They encourage an exchange of explicit photos, and once that happens, the real predator emerges and threatens to distribute the photo to everyone the child knows unless they pay up.

Homeland Security Investigations says there have been more than 7,000 reports involving 3,000 victims in the past year. Those are just the ones they know about. 

The FBI’s Internet Criminal Complaint Center logged 18,000 reports of sextortion-related crimes in 2021, saying they’ve cost Americans $13.6 million.

Many victims pay to avoid embarrassment and many others don’t even report the crime for pretty much the same reason.

Two East Valley families described their experiences with sextortion. They spoke on condition their names would not be published, given that the victims are juveniles. 

Call them John Doe and Joe Smith.

John Doe’s mom found out her son had a problem when she received a notification from their bank that he was trying to withdraw a large amount of money.

“I said, ‘what on earth is my son spending $200 on?’” John’s mother said. 

She was visiting a neighbor when she got the notification and immediately called her 14-year-old son. 

“He goes, ‘Mom, can you just come home?’ And I go, well, I’m visiting, I’ll be home in a minute. He was, ‘Could you just come home right now?’”

She raced home and opened the front door to see her son crying.

“‘Mom, I messed up. I messed up so bad,’” she recalled him saying. “He was beside himself, he was hysterical. In that moment, I just looked him in the eye and just told him, I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know what’s going on, and I’m not sure what happened. 

“’But there is nothing that we cannot work through. We’re going to fix this. I’m not saying it’s not going to be painful, but we’re going to fix this, and we’ll figure this out together. I’m with you.’”

Joe Smith’s mother said pretty much the same thing to her son, who had just turned 13 when he was victimized.

She found out when her son kept trying to get a look at her phone early one morning. 

“He comes into my room to look at my phone, and I say, ‘Hey bud, what do you need?’ He says, ‘I have a migraine,’ and I said, ‘OK do you want me to get you some Tylenol or Advil or whatever?’

“I go downstairs and he’s trying to get into my phone when I come upstairs.”

He asked her if he could see the footage she shot at a game he played the previous week. So, she unlocked the phone and showed it to him. 

She learned later that the boy was told the predators were going to post the photo they had of him to all his family and friends. He wanted to look at the phone to see if they carried out that threat.

“I go about my business and I see him pacing in the hallway, and again we’re talking like 5 a.m., 5:30 a.m., and he doesn’t get up until about 7:30.”

Finally, her son came clean.

“He says, ‘Mom, I think I need some help. This person wants money from me.’

“As soon as he said that, I instantly knew. I said, ‘Buddy, I know exactly what this is, don’t you worry about it. They are trying to scare you. Just show me what you did, show me what I need to know.”

Then she told him, “‘This person cannot harm you, we are going to shut it down. I am so grateful that you had the ability, the bravery to come to me.’”

In both cases the predators on the other side of the conversation did not get what they wanted – and did not post any photos to the children’s friends.

John Doe’s mother called the police and immediately suspended her child’s social media accounts to prevent any postings to or from them. 

The next time the predator tried to contact her son, she answered. Telling him who she was and that police have been called. The predator quit the conversation and never returned.

Joe Smith’s mother had a little more difficulty suspending her son’s social media accounts because he had forgotten his passwords. But eventually they figured that out and suspended them.

John Doe’s mother said she didn’t care what they had to do, even if that meant moving to a different state to start over. She said she told her son there are consequences, and sometimes they are painful, but they would get through it.

Both moms had the same advice for other parents: Talk to your children now, make sure they’re aware of the danger.

“Talk now to sons and your daughters, talk every single day,” said Joe Smith’s mother. “Too young doesn’t exist in my mind. He was 12, well he just turned 13. If your kid has a phone, if your kid has a friend, they could have a social media account through the friend that they access on their phone. 

“So talk to your kid. Remind them they have a safe place to talk to you and use my story as an example.”

“It’s uncomfortable to bring it up with your children, you know, sex, when they’re 10, 12, 11, 13, 14, 15 even 16,” John Doe’s mom said. “Let them know, there’s people who don’t think like we do. 

“You’re just not conditioned to recognize (someone trying to manipulate you). Even though it’s uncomfortable, talk to you kids. Let them know it’s out there.”

Both boys are popular at their schools and are athletes. That makes them pretty much the ideal victim, Joe Smith’s mother said.

“He is the perfect demographic, the perfect target,” she said of her son. Being popular means he has something to lose and a lot to fear.

Stacey Sutherland is with the Arizona Anti-Trafficking Network, which is a non-government organization that works with many East Valley police departments on sextortion and similar crimes.

“It’s a great tool, but for kids, it can be really, really dangerous,” Sutherland said of smart phones. “It can be a doorway to invite people who do not have good intentions right into the house, essentially.”

She said a teen mind trying to deal with someone demanding money with the threat of circulating embarrassing photos can seem like the end of the world.

“Sometimes it’s an empty threat, but sometimes it’s not an empty threat.”

And the danger goes beyond embarrassment.

“There was a case in California last year, where the time between a boy being sextorted and killing himself was less than a couple of hours,” she said.

That boy was Ryan Last, a 17-year-old, straight-A student and Boy Scout who lived in San Jose, according to news reports. In his suicide note he said how embarrassed he was for himself and his family. He died in February.

The naked photos don’t even have to be real. John Doe’s mother said her son sent a partial photo that did not show everything.

“As well as the picture that my son had sent, they imposed somebody’s else’s body on his likeness,” John Doe’s mother said.

Using AI to create nude photos also happens. Sutherland pointed to a case in Spain this September.

AI-generated nude photos of at least 30 girls at a school in Almendralejo – a town of about 30,000 residents – made international news this fall. The girls were between 12 and 14. One girl told her mother that a boy had demanded money or he would circulate the photo.

Police said the perpetrators used photos from social media profiles and uploaded them to an app that converted them to realistic nude photos.

“Social media changes everything,” Sutherland said. “It’s the place where our kids get validation, it’s where they connect to their peers, where they feel an inclusive community.

“Parents need to be on the app, they need to make sure their children’s profiles are private, and they need to be having conversations that not everybody on the Internet is a good person, and that you should never be sharing images of yourself.”  

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