FBI issues public safety alert, says 3,000 minors have been ‘sextortion’ victims: ‘Horrific increase’

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The FBI issued a national public safety alert Monday warning that more than 3,000 minors have been targeted in the past year across the United States in online “financial sextortion” schemes.

The schemes, primarily targeting boys, involve coercing children and teenagers into sending explicit images online and then extorting them for money. Over the past year, law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 confirmed victims.

The FBI says more than a dozen suicides were linked to these sextortion schemes, a large percentage of which originate outside the United States, and primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

As many children enter winter break this holiday season, the FBI, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, sounded the alarm over what they categorize as an “explosion” of these incidents, imploring parents and caregivers to educate their children.

FBI WARNS TEEN BOYS INCREASINGLY TARGETED IN ONLINE ‘SEXTORTION’ THEMES

“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,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “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. 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.”

FBI Director Chris Wray testifies during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled Threats to the Homeland, in Dirksen Building on Thursday, November 17, 2022.

FBI Director Chris Wray testifies during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing titled Threats to the Homeland, in Dirksen Building on Thursday, November 17, 2022.
(Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Financial sextortion schemes occur in online environments where young people feel most comfortable, using common social media sites, gaming sites, or video chat applications that feel familiar and safe, the alert says. On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males, between 14 and 17 years old, but the FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10 years old.

Through deception, predators convince the young person to produce an explicit video or photo. Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends money or gift cards. Often the predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications, according to the FBI.

In many cases, predators release the images even if payments are made. 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, the alert says.

Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters building in Washington DC, United States, on November 29, 2022.

Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters building in Washington DC, United States, on November 29, 2022.
(Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“This is a growing crisis, and we’ve seen sextortion completely devastate children and families,” Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the NCMEC, said in a statement. “As the leading nonprofit focused on child protection, we’ve seen first-hand the rise in these cases worldwide. 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 FBI says if young people are being exploited, they are victims of a crime and should report it. Contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.

The NCMEC has outlined steps parents and young people can take if they or their child are a victim of sextortion, including to “remember the predator is to blame, not your child or you” The center advises to get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.

This file image shows a child porn investigator.

This file image shows a child porn investigator.
(Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The NCMEC says to report the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature and block the predator, but do not delete the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them. NCMEC can help get explicit images off the internet.

Parents or caregivers can visit MissingKids.org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies themselves or visit cybertipline.org to report to us for help with the process.

For minors who “don’t feel that you have adults in your corner,” the FBI advises reaching out to the NCMEC for support at gethelp@ncmec.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.

“The protection of children is a society’s most sacred duty,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said. “It calls on each of us to do everything we can to keep kids from harm, including ensuring the threats they face are brought into the light and confronted. Armed with the information in this alert message, parents, caregivers, and children themselves should feel empowered to detect fake identities, take steps to reject any attempt to obtain private material, and if targeted, have a plan to seek help from a trusted adult.”

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“The sexual exploitation of children is a deplorable crime. HSI special agents will continue to exhaust every resource to identify, locate, and apprehend predators to ensure they face justice,” Steve K. Francis, HSI Acting Executive Associate Director, added. “Criminals who lurk in platforms on the internet are not as anonymous as they think. HSI will continue to leverage cutting-edge technology to end these heinous acts.”