Teen Sextortion Scams: Keeping Kids Safe from Online Sextortion
In the past year, there has been a terrifying online trend called “sextortion” that has been growing for both kids and parents.
Sextortion is when an internet predator or scammer tricks people (often children and teens) into sending them sexually explicit images or embarrassing photos and material online.
The criminal will then blackmail (extort) the victim not to share this information. This usually occurs through requesting money or stealing personal information.
This guide will provide information on how to identify the warning signs of sextortion, the legal consequences of this online crime and how to report sextortion if you or your child is a victim.
In order for parents to prevent sextortion, we will also discuss best practices for keeping information private and safe online, how to talk to your children about online crimes and extortion, and what to do if you believe or your child/teen is a victim of sextortion.
What is Sextortion?
Sextortion is a form of blackmail where someone threatens to share explicit images such as nude photos or videos of the victim with the victim’s friends, family, or online contacts unless they comply with their demands.
Demands could be more explicit content, money (financial sextortion), or other forms of coercion. The victim feels ashamed, helpless, hopeless and isolated in their situation and is afraid to ask for help. There have been devastating cases where teen victims have resorted to ending their own lives.
Is Sextortion a Crime?
Yes, sextortion is a serious crime. Sextortion can affect individuals of any age, but it has a particularly serious impact on the mental health of young people with potentially life-threatening consequences.
The FBI, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, issued a National Safety Alert about the increase in sextortion scams in US communities. Specifically, over 3,000 minor victims were targeted last year in 2022 across the US. The sextortion victims were primarily teen boys; it was reported that more than a dozen had died by suicide.
In the National Public Safety Alert, Zachary A. Myers, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana provided the following statement:
“Sexual exploitation of children is a despicable crime that may go unrecognized by friends and family of the victims. In this digital age, it is imperative that we stay informed of the deception and other tactics sexual predators use to harm our children. Victims of sextortion may feel confused, embarrassed, and as if there is no escape. I strongly urge parents and caregivers to engage with the children in their lives to discuss this crime and help law enforcement agencies prevent the abuse before it happens.”
Warning Signs of Sextortion For Parents and Caregivers
It’s crucial for parents to understand how to guide their children in preventing sextortion and to understand all the potential risks and consequences associated with it.
The warning signs of sextortion can vary, but here are some common signs to watch for:
Receiving Threatening Messages
Victims may receive threatening messages that demand explicit photos or videos, threatening to share compromising content if demands aren’t met.
Sharing Personal Information
Perpetrators may have gathered personal information about the victim, such as their home address, high school, or family details, and may threaten to expose this information.
Predators often establish trust and emotional connections with victims online. They may pretend to be someone the victim knows or cares about, using fake identities or excessive flattery. They refuse face-to-face interactions and may use excuses (“My camera doesn’t work.”) to appear on camera to avoid being identified.
Receiving Unsolicited Explicit Content
Perpetrators may send unsolicited explicit content to victims as a way to initiate contact and gain trust.
Victims often experience high levels of emotional distress, fear, and anxiety due to threats and manipulation.
Isolation from Friends and Family
Victims may start withdrawing from friends and family, keeping their online interactions and the sextortion situation a secret.
Changes in Behavior
Adolescents may exhibit changes in behavior, such as a sudden drop in academic performance, increased secrecy about online activities, or signs of depression or anxiety.
In some cases, perpetrators may demand money or gift cards from victims in exchange for not sharing explicit content.
What to Do if You or Your Child is Being Sextorted
If you or your child is being sextorted, there are steps you should take to ensure your safety and well-being.
Tell your child that they are not alone; this has happened to others. Here are some links to stories you can share with your child:
- Illinois Man Sentenced to 22 Years in Federal Prison for Sexual Exploitation and “Sextortion” of a 12-Year-Old Girl Via Snapchat and Omegle
- Child Predator and Cyberterrorist, Buster Hernandez, aka “BrianKil,” is Sentenced to 75 years in Federal Prison
- Center for Online Safety: Ryan’s story
Tell your child that they are a victim of a serious crime. What the criminal did is considered Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) which has severe legal consequences such as a life sentence.
How to Report Sextortion
If you or your child are ready, contact the FBI at 1–800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online (tips.fbi.gov). The FBI has worked on thousands of sextortion cases and they want to stop them from happening, arrest the offenders and help victims get the support they need.
Lastly, tell your child not to delete the photos, videos and/or conversations with the offender even though they may want to because they feel embarrassed. This is evidence that the FBI will need to review.
How to Talk to Your Teen about Sextortion
The FBI website provides three 30-second conversations you can have with your kids or kids you know.
The New Version of Don’t Talk to Strangers
When you’re online, has anyone you don’t know ever tried to contact or talk to you?
What did you do or what would you do if that happened?
Why do you think someone would want to reach a kid online?
You know, it’s easy to pretend to be someone you’re not online and not every person is a good person. Make sure you block or ignore anything that comes in from someone you don’t know in real life.
The Power of a Picture
Has anyone you know ever sent a picture of themselves that got passed around school or a team or club?
What’s possible anytime you send someone a picture?
What if that picture were embarrassing?
Can you think about how someone could use that kind of picture against a person?
I’m Here to Help
I read an article today about kids being pressured to send images and video of their bodies to a person they met online. Have you ever heard about anything like that?
Sometimes they were being threatened and harassed — scary stuff.
You know, if you are ever feeling like something is going on — online or off — that feels scary or wrong or over your head, my first concern is going to be helping you. You can always come to me.
Ways to Protect Yourself and Your Child from Sextortion
The most important way to protect your children from online predators and scammers is to maintain open communication about their online activities and relationships.
Create a safe space for your teen to talk to you when they face an issue. Build trust with them and reassure them that you are always there to help no matter what.
Here are some ways to protect yourself and your child from sextortion:
Teach your kids to not turn on the camera on their phone, laptop or tablet for strangers. Remind them to turn off their devices when not in use and to use a sticker to cover the webcam as they can be hacked.
Discuss the Risks of Live Streaming
Explain that live streaming can easily be recorded and shared with thousands of people. Also, a predator may pretend to livestream but is actually using content that has been prerecorded.
Never Share Explicit Content
Emphasize the importance of not sharing explicit images or videos, even with people they know and trust. Once something is online, it’s challenging to control who sees it.
Be Cautious About Sharing Personal Information
Teach teens to be cautious about sharing personal information online, such as their full name, location, school, or contact information. Online predators can use this information to target victims.
Tell them not to create passwords that are easy to guess (pet’s names, birth date, etc.) and to never share them with others.
Use Strong Privacy Settings
Encourage your teen to use strong privacy settings and parental controls on social media accounts and only accept friend or follower requests from people they know in real life.
Trust Your Instincts
Explain to your teen that if something online feels uncomfortable or suspicious, they should trust their instincts and not engage further. They should immediately block or report anyone who makes them feel unsafe.
Don’t Respond to Threats
If someone threatens to share explicit content, teens should not respond to the threats. Instead, they should immediately tell a trusted adult about the situation. Open communication is crucial in addressing potential issues.
Know the Signs of Online Predators
Teens should be aware of common tactics used by online predators, such as creating fake profiles, pretending to be someone they’re not, or using flattery or sending explicit content to gain trust.
Report Inappropriate Behavior Right Away
Teach your teens how to report any inappropriate or threatening behavior on social media platforms or websites immediately. Most platforms have reporting mechanisms for such situations.
For more ideas on how to keep your kids safe online, check out these 15 Apps for Parents to Monitor Kids Phone Use.
Online Safety Resources
Here are some reputable online safety resources and organizations that can provide further information and support:
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
- Sexting: How to Talk With Kids About the Risks
- Scams & Safety: Sextortion (FBI)
- Sextortion: It’s More Common Than You Think (Department of Homeland Security)
- My Son Was a Victim of Sextortion: Here’s What I Want Parents to Know (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children)
If you suspect that someone you know is a victim of sextortion, take the situation seriously and seek help from law enforcement and other relevant authorities.
Canadian Centre for Child Protection Inc. (2023). How to Talk to Teens about Sextortion. ProtectKidsOnline.ca. https://protectkidsonline.ca/app/en/info_online_extortion
Center for Online Safety. (2023). Sextortion and What Parents Need to Know. Center for Online Safety. https://www.centerforonlinesafety.com/blog/sextortion-what-do-i-do
FBI. (2023). Sextortion: What Kids and Caregivers Need to Know. Federal Bureau of Investigation. https://www.fbi.gov/how-we-can-help-you/safety-resources/scams-and-safety/common-scams-and-crimes/sextortion
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. (2023, July 18). My Son Was a Victim of Sextortion: What I Want Parents to Know. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2023/sextortion-parents-should-know
Talib, H. (2023, August 2). What do teens need to know about. HealthyChildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/tips-tools/ask-the-pediatrician/Pages/what-do-teens-need-to-know-about-online-predators-and-sextortion-scammers.aspx
U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of Indiana. (2023, January 19). Southern District of Indiana | FBI and Partners Issue National Public Safety Alert on Sextortion Schemes | United States Department of Justice. Www.justice.gov. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdin/pr/fbi-and-partners-issue-national-public-safety-alert-sextortion-schemes