The FBI and Homeland Security Investigations have issued a national warning to parents regarding an “explosion in incidents” of children being coerced into sending explicit images and extorted for money.
The FBI said the crime is known as “financial sextortion.”
Law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports in the past year related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides.
A large percentage of the schemes originate outside of the United States and primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
“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.
“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,” Wray said.
The schemes occur in online environments where young people feel most comfortable, such as common social media sites, gaming sites or video chat applications, according to the FBI.
Online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males between 14-17 years old, but the FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10 years old.
“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,” said Steve K. Francis, HSI acting executive associate director.
“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,” Francis said.
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, the FBI said.
Often the predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications.
In many cases, the suspects release the images even if payments are made.
The shame, fear, and confusion that victims feel when they are caught in the cycle often prevent them from asking for help or reporting the abuse, the FBI said.
“The protection of children is a society’s most sacred duty,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
“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,” Polite said.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CEO Michelle DeLaune called this type of scheme a “growing crisis.”
The FBI said they implore parents and caregivers to engage with their kids about the schemes to prevent them.
Anyone who has been a victim of this type of scheme should contact their local FBI field office by calling 800-CALL-FBI or reporting it online at tips.fbi.gov.