With the holiday season on the horizon and many children set to spend more time at home browsing the internet, U.S. law enforcement on Monday issued a national public safety alert about what they describe as an "explosion" in cases of children and teens being extorted to send sexually explicit photos and videos online.
In just the past year, law enforcement received over 7,000 reports of online financial "sextortion" attempts, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, the alert says.
Through deception, predators convince a young person to produce an explicit video or photo, according to the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI is the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.
Once predators acquire images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends 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 victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse, according to law enforcement.
The FBI additionally reported a 1,000% increase in incidents of financial sextortion that were reported in the first six months of 2022 compared to the same timeframe in 2021.
The schemes are unique, according to officials, in that they have largely targeted young boys between the ages of 14 and 17. Law enforcement has identified more than a dozen suicides they say are directly attributable to the schemes.
"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."
According to the alert, a large portion of the "sextortion attempts" actually originate outside of the U.S., primarily in West African countries like Nigeria and the Ivory Coast -- making it more difficult for authorities to crack down on perpetrators.
To mitigate the risk, the FBI and DHS say parents and caregivers should engage with their children to be wary of how online "sextortion" attempts are executed.
Officials say typically predators will target children or young adults on social media, gaming or chatting platforms where they might feel comfortable. They then coerce them into sending a sexually explicit image or video and extort them for hundreds or sometimes thousands of dollars threatening to release the pictures or send them to close family or friends.
"It is important to remind children that they are not in trouble and that they are not alone," an FBI official told reporters Monday. "The shame and embarrassment of becoming a victim often prevent children from reporting. So it's up to all of us to reassure children that there's life after pictures."