A Rapid and Alarming Increase in the Exploitation of Minors Through Financial Sextortion

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

By Lt. Joe Laramie, ret.

As we close out Child Abuse Prevention Month, it is important to remember our responsibilities for protecting children from abuse – and to commit to actions that will keep our children safe every day of the year. These protections range from providing a safe environment for children to educating them about various dangers they may face. We can all contribute to a safer world for children!

I’ve been teaching internet safety for more than 20 years and am not an alarmist about how our kids and teens use technology, but I am very concerned about the recent surge of financial sextortion – and especially the number of children who saw no way out.

Sextortion is when someone obtains nude or explicit images or videos and threatens to share that content with others unless the victim complies with a demand. For sexual based sextortion, the demand is for more images or sexual contact, and the typical victim is a girl aged 10 to 17. For financially based sextortion, it is about paying the offender with money or gift cards, with the typical victim a teen boy aged 14 to 17.

In the spring of 2022, the FBI, HSI and the ICAC began to see an increase in reports of financial sextortion. Throughout that year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received more than 10,700 financial sextortion related CyberTipline reports, and more than 26,000 reports 2023 – an increase of nearly 250%. Tragically, overall, there have been at least 20 teen suicides related to financial sextortion.

Most of the offenders are in Nigeria or Ivory Coast. I was at a global forum on sextortion last summer, and a woman from Nigeria said, “In my country, this is a legitimate job.” With offenders in foreign countries, and motivated by money, we are not going to arrest our way of this. Awareness and prevention education is the key to protecting our youth. We must have that conversation, and it must be more than a one-time event.

How does a typical financial sextortion case happen?

  • Well-trained, organized crime groups identify victims who are susceptible to sextortion scams. Most are good kids with lots of friends. They are strong students, athletes, or children of prominent people. These are the kids with the most to lose.
  • Perpetrators impersonate a teen female and target boys on various platforms, such as Snapchat, Instagram and others. They ask the victim to move to multiple sites where they will screen capture the victim’s friends lists on each site.
  • The process moves quickly – it can be just 2 to 6 hours, and often happens at night behind a closed bedroom door.
  • The perpetrator is sexually aggressive, sends stolen explicit material to the victim, then says – I’ve sent you mine, now send me yours, and they will always want to have the victim’s face in the image or video.
  • Once the victim sends that content, the offender immediately threatens to release it to their family and friends and shows the captured friends list to show who they will share it with. If the victim does send money, it’s never enough; they’ll want more. The money is sent through a cash app like Venmo or PayPal (or a gift card) to a U.S.-based money mule who forwards it internationally.
  • Even if the victim begs and threatens suicide, they don’t care and have even said, “Go ahead, your life is over anyway.”

What can parents and peers do to help those victimized by these offenders?

First and foremost, although there may be bumps along the way, there is nothing that warrants harming yourself. Start with explaining how the crime happens, and how the offenders are very good at their crime. Explain that you shouldn’t send explicit images to others, but also MUST explain that if you do make that mistake, please don’t be afraid to come to me for help – No matter what time of day or night. Keep in mind that if your child does come to you, they are in the midst of a terribly traumatic event, admitting a mistake and needing your help. If your response is a loud – “I told you not to do that.” – that’s not helpful. You should say – “Okay, tell me what happened and let’s talk about how we deal with this.” You’ll find some tips and resources at the end of the article.

There are lots of other crimes that can victimize kids and teens. Parents must talk with their children about their online use. This should start at the time a child has access to a mobile device – which could be their own or regular access through school, friends or family members. Include in your conversations all the standard protections such as not sharing your password, avoiding explicit online content and not sharing personal information with online strangers. My team created parent and youth resources, which available for download on the National ICAC Task Force website and many  include conversations starters.

What should you do if you’re a victim of sextortion?

  • Don’t pay the offender. If you already have paid them, stop paying, and stop all contact.
  • Block them on the social media sites you used and report the incident to those platforms. Don’t delete any communication. Take a screen shot of messages but not explicit imagery.
  • Secure all your digital accounts; change passwords and update privacy settings to two-factor authentication.
  • Notify your local police. If you’re not comfortable doing that, find a friend, teacher, counselor, coach or minister that you can talk with.
  • Notify the CyberTipline operated by NCMEC. Their site also offers a variety of resources to help victims:
  • Avoid paying a service to investigate the incident; some of these are scams too.
  • Explore other available resources:

This article reflects viewpoints and experience of the contributing individuals and/or organizations.

About the Author
Joe Laramie is a retired police Lieutenant who served with the Glendale Missouri Police Department for more than 30 years, spending the last nine years as the Commander of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, known as ICAC. He later worked as an Administrator with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office responsible for online crimes against children and Human Trafficking and recently retired from the National Criminal Justice Training Center (NCJTC) where he led online child exploitation prevention for the National ICAC Task Force Program.

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