PITTSBURGH – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations – Philadelphia (HSI), the Federal Bureau of Investigation – Pittsburgh (FBI), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), is issuing a public safety alert regarding an alarming increase in the online exploitation of children and teens.
Reports of the online enticement of minors have dramatically spiked in recent months—including reports of sextortion. “Sextortion”—a term that combines the words “sex” and “extortion”—occurs when an individual, often a child, is threatened or blackmailed, usually online, by a person demanding sexual content (photos/videos) or money from the child against his or her will. This may happen when a child or teen shares an image with someone they thought they knew or trusted, but the individual has gained the child’s trust through deceit, coercion, or deception (and sometimes, predators falsely claim that they have obtained photos that the child may have shared with someone else). Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends additional images, money, or gift cards. Often the predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications. In many cases, however, predators release the images even if payments are made. The shame, fear, and confusion that victims experience when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.
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. On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males between 14- and 17-years old but victims as young as 10 years old have been interviewed.
LEARN MORE – RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO YOUR CHILD
A new documentary by Auroris Media explores a large-scale HSI investigation into one perpetrator of the sexual exploitation of children. The documentary, Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic, shows how child predators target their victims on the internet and how one individual was able to target children all over the world and extort them for sexually explicit images. The documentary is available to rent or purchase on all major streaming services.
Generally, sextortion only stops when a child either tells an adult or the offender is identified by law enforcement. Because prevention is key to helping unsuspecting children from falling victim to online predators, the producers of the film, in partnership with the National Center for Missing Children, used parts of the documentary to create resources to share with parents and educators. The resources include three modules, along with a film discussion guide—with discussion questions and potential answers—to assist adults in talking with young people about their use of technology and the possibility of online exploitation. Talking with children and teens about sextortion can be uncomfortable. These resources aim to help make the conversation easier. The resources help young people recognize online exploitation and sextortion and encourage children to report their victimization to adults. The resource modules with discussion guides can be found at: https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2022/sextortion-the-hidden-pandemic
Additional information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
WHAT IF YOU OR YOUR CHILD IS A VICTIM?
HSI and the FBI encourage the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity. You can contact HSI through its toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock. From outside the United States and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users may call TTY 802-872-6196.
Contact your local FBI field office (in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia at 412-432-4000), call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has outlined steps parents and young people can take if they or their child are a victim of sextortion, including:
• Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.
• Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.
• REPORT the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
• BLOCK the predator and DO NOT DELETE the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them.
• Let NCMEC help get explicit images of you off the internet.
• Ask for help. This can be a very complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
• If a victim does not feel that they have adults in their corner, the child can reach out directly to NCMEC for support at email@example.com or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.