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Sextortion increasing, targeting minors

By Kate Ready
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via- Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — Minors are experiencing sextortion online at an alarming rate, according to the FBI. The agency issued a warning stating that in Atlanta, reports have increased 700% since 2021. Wyoming has seen the same spike.

Sextortion is defined as “an offender coercing a minor to create and send sexually explicit images or video.” Once the offender gets sexually explicit material from the child, a threat to release that compromising material soon follows, prompting the victim to either produce more images or pay off the extortionist.

Typically, the FBI says, offenders are seeking one of two things: sexual gratification or money. Nationwide, more than 13,000 claims of financial sextortion of minors, involving 12,600 victims, were reported to federal authorities between October 2021 and March 2023.

“Since 2021, sextortion has just exploded, and it continues to today,” said Chris McDonald, who leads the Internet Crimes Against Children task force for the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation.

While Wyoming has what might appear to be a low volume of cases, they’re increasing at a high rate that’s “right in line” with national trends, McDonald said. The state has documented a 700% increase since 2021. Go back a few more years, to 2018, and the increase jumps to 840%. The total numbers are still small, though, with 47 cases reported in 2023, compared with five in 2018.

Victims often are boys ages 13 to 17, McDonald said. The FBI’s warning found the same. However, any minor can be a victim.

“They’re contacted on whatever platform you see a lot of kids on — Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger or online games,” McDonald said. “Any platform that a kid is on, predators are also on.”

The FBI estimates that 500,000 predators are online every day.

Minors may see that the predator has some mutual friends with them, adding them as friends too, at which point a chat or direct message pops up.

McDonald said that when he speaks to fifth and sixth grade classes, 90% of children raise their hands when they’re asked if they’ve had to block someone displaying predatory behavior online.

Conversations quickly become sexual, going from “zero to 100” very quickly, McDonald said.

“There’s very little small talk beforehand,” he said. “It’s kind of unfortunate, but we see [that] trading nude images is almost second hand sometimes.”

If predators believe the minor is heterosexual, they will often pretend to be a woman, between the ages of 18 and 25 or a fellow student. In reality, the perpetrator is often overseas. McDonald said the majority of bad actors are linked to Nigeria or the Ivory Coast, which makes the cases difficult to investigate.

Once nude images are obtained, perpetrators threaten to release compromising material unless they receive payment, which is often requested in gift cards, mobile payment services, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.

 

McDonald encouraged victims to report offenders to the website or social media platform being used and to contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children through its “Take it Down” program.

The program can provide an image’s DNA, known as a “hash set,” to participating online platforms. If that hash set is spotted on platforms’ servers, the company can delete the image and track down the account.

Wyoming also has an anonymous tip line, called Safe2Tell.

Teton County School District spokesperson Charlotte Reynolds said the schools do “quite a bit” of education on cyber citizenship, including cyber safety. “We also work with local law enforcement. For example, the sheriff’s office has a couple of posters on the bulletin boards at the high school about sextortion specifically,” Reynolds said in an email.

Tia Stanton, a school resource officer, said a couple of high school-age students have reported sextortion.

Stanton was unable to give an exact number of reports, stating that a lot of these cases are not being reported due to embarrassment and shame of having first sent the photos.

“We’re trying to make it more of a topic that [kids] can approach and report without feeling those feelings,” Stanton said. “We want to normalize the reporting of it.”

With the cases she’s seen, Stanton said the victim may think the person on the other end of the conversation is another high schooler, a grooming method used to put the juvenile at ease.

“You think they’re your friend or that they want a romantic relationship,” Stanton said. “The victim thinks it’s a real relationship. Kids are seeking connection, relationships, validation. … They want to feel like they have somebody, and these predators know that.”

Law enforcement suggests cutting off communication and blocking the account as soon as nude images are requested.

“In our experience, that usually ends the harassment,” Stanton said.

Adults also are being targeted online.

A Jackson man filed a report Jan. 10 that someone “pulled pictures of him naked” and was threatening to expose him. He had sent the images to an ex-girlfriend a decade ago, he told police. The number of the person blackmailing him was linked to an internet-generated phone number. He didn’t send the suspect any money and blocked the number.

McDonald and Stanton both fear how artificial intelligence could enhance the grooming process and place more children at risk of being duped.

Generative AI may allow a perpetrator to copy and paste how a 10th grader might speak, or create artificial images of themselves that portray them as a fellow student, or create child sexual abuse material using a real child’s face.

“Anybody can pretend to be anything,” Stanton said. “Be wary of who’s reaching out to you.”

McDonald said the numbers do hold a silver living, suggesting that more people are setting shame aside and reporting sextortion.

“No one’s getting mad at you if you are a victim,” McDonald said.

McDonald and Stanton emphasized the importance of communication and education.

“Our kids aren’t allowed to drive a car without extensive training, but so many kids are given unfettered access to the internet without training,” McDonald said. “There’s no silver bullet. It really comes down to communication, having conversations early and often.”

How to prevent sextortion

For Parents:

  • Open communication: Explain to the children in your life that people can pretend to be anyone or anything online, a stranger reaching out to them online may be doing so with bad intent, and no matter what the platform or application claims, nothing “disappears” online. If they take a photo or video, it always has the potential to become public.
  • Be in the know: Know the applications your child is using and passwords for those accounts. Review the settings on those accounts with them; keeping accounts private can prevent predators from gathering their personal information.
  • Keep the door open: Let the minor know they can come to you and that your first move will be to help — always. Predators are powerful because of fear, and the victims suffer ever more negative consequences as the crime carries on over days, weeks and months. If you are the adult a child trusts with this information, comfort them, help them understand they have been the victim of a crime, and help them report it to law enforcement.

 

For Children:

  • Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you.
  • Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
  • People can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that people are who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen. In some cases, predators have even taken over the social media accounts of their victims.
  • Any content you create online — whether it is a text message, photo, or video — can be made public. And nothing actually “disappears” online. Once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.
  • Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator, or go to an adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.
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