Almost two-thirds of teenagers globally have been targeted for “sextortion” schemes by criminals seeking to pressure victims into sexual activity or extort money, according to recent research.
Sixty-five percent of Generation Z teens and young adults have been targets of “catfishing” scams across popular social media platforms or had their personal data hacked by criminals, according to a June 21 report by Snapchat’s parent company Snap Inc. and published by the WeProtect Global Alliance.
“In both scenarios, the resulting photos and videos were then used to threaten or blackmail the young people, with abusers demanding money, gift cards, more sexual imagery, or other personal information in supposed exchange for not releasing the material to the young person’s family and friends,” the report said.
Catfishing refers to pretending to be someone else to find victims to exploit online.
According to the FBI, sextortion begins when a predator reaches out to a young person online through gaming sites, dating apps, or social media accounts.
The predator then acts like someone in the age group of the minor who is interested in beginning a relationship or is offering something of value. The adult can use inducements like gifts or money and other methods to get the young person to send sexually explicit images or videos.
The predator then asks for more such content. When the child refuses, the criminal can threaten to publish the content in their possession online or warn them about other harms they can inflict, pressuring the victims to send more explicit images and videos.
The Snap Inc. study surveyed over 6,000 respondents from six nations, including the United States. Seventy-one percent of respondents who got trapped in a catfishing scheme were asked to share intimate imagery or personal info. While a net 31 percent shared intimate imagery, 30 percent revealed their personal information.
Twenty-five percent of the victims provided private information as well, which refers to details about their family and friends.
“Scammers may not be looking solely for immediate financial (or other) return from the target. Rather, their goal might be to widen their net to ensnare more people or to try to entice others for sexual relationships or other interactions,” the report said.
In a public service announcement on June 6, the FBI warned that criminals were using social media photos and videos, including those of minors, and altering them into sexual content.
“The photos or videos are then publicly circulated on social media or pornographic websites, for the purpose of harassing victims or sextortion schemes,” the agency said while urging people to “exercise caution” when posting photos and videos of themselves online.
According to the FBI, individuals who engage in sextortion schemes against youngsters “have studied how to reach and target children and teens.”
“One person the FBI put in prison for this crime was a man in his 40s who worked as a youth minister so he could learn how teens talked to each other,” the agency said.
“Then, he created social media profiles where he pretended to be a teenage girl. This ‘girl’ would start talking to boys online and encourage them to make videos.”
Reaching Out for Help
According to the WeProtect report, 56 percent of catfished or hacked victims are male.
“For young males who have experienced a sextortion incident—and the majority are males—they regularly tell us that when they share the situation with their parents, they feel relieved,” said Arda Gerkens, president of the Dutch child abuse hotline Offlimits.
“We advise them to report to hotlines and helplines; to report to the platforms; and to tell their parents, a friend, or a trusted adult. They should not be going through this alone.”
The study found that 56 percent of respondents said that they or their victimized friends sought help after being threatened by approaching their friends, parents, or trusted adults. Fifty-one percent reported the incident to the platform, law enforcement, or a hotline.
Meanwhile, the FBI advises parents to monitor the online activities of their children as well as run frequent searches online to know how much information about their kids is publicly available.
“Consider using reverse image search engines to locate any photos or videos that have circulated on the internet without your knowledge,” the agency said.
Sextortion of Minors
According to a December 2022 press release by the FBI, law enforcement had received more than 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors in the past year. This resulted in at least 3,000 victims, mostly boys, and over a dozen suicides.
A large percentage of such schemes were found to originate in nations outside the United States, primarily in West African countries like Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
Data from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) show that its CyberTipline has received over 262,000 reports of online enticement, including sextortion, since 2016. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of reports involving sextortion more than doubled.
In NCMEC’s earlier analysis, the dominant motive of the offenders was found to be aimed at getting more explicit images of children. However, reports from early 2022 showed that 79 percent of offenders were now after money.
In a May 3 press conference, Jennifer Buta, the mother of a 17-year-old boy from Michigan who committed suicide after being a victim of a sextortion scheme, asked parents to have “tough conversations” with their children about the dangers such scams pose.
“Kids, teenagers, young adults, and even adults can be a target of sextortion. We urge you to have discussions about this and have a plan for your children to reach out if it does happen to them,” she said.
People living in the United States having suicidal thoughts can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free and confidential support. For Spanish support, contact 888-628-9454. Crisis Text Line offers a live, trained crisis counselor via a simple text for help. The UK’s National Health Service also lists a variety of resources on its website.
An app created by Befrienders Worldwide helps distressed people connect with an emotional support center close by.