July 14, 2024

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Those of you who have followed my writings know that I’m not an alarmist. Since I started SafeKids.com in the late ’90s and co-founded ConnectSafely in 2005, I’ve been among the internet safety advocates who have gone out of the way to put risks into perspective and
encourage people to avoid exaggeration and panic when it comes to such things as internet predators, extreme cases of cyberbullying and other online harms.
I’m still careful not to be an alarmist but it’s hard not to ignore recent FBI warnings of a “huge increase” in sextortion scams targeting teens, especially boys 14 to 17. The Cyberbullying Research Center, which has always been good about keeping things in perspective and reporting only carefully vetted studies, says 5% of teens have been the target of sextortion, and only one-third told their parents. The research center also reported that “males were significantly more likely to have experienced sextortion (both as a victim and as an offender)” and “adolescents who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion.”
Sextortion cases for financial reasons targeting teens, according to former Internet Crimes Against Children Commander Joe Laramie, is on the rise and is often perpetrated by organized crime operating outside the country. I’ve known Laramie for years, and unlike some in law enforcement, he’s not prone to exaggeration, so it concerns me that he said “I’m very alarmed about this.”
Although they can be related, sextortion is different from so-called revenge porn. While revenge porn is typically perpetrated by a former partner, often in retribution to a breakup, sextortion, according to the FBI. is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute nude or compromising images for gain, usually financial or sexual, including wanting more images or contact. The perpetrator are often adults posing as teens, but there have been cases of young people victimizing other youth. Either way, it’s a crime with potentially devastating consequences.
Sometimes the perpetrators work in teams.Cyberbullying Research Center co-director Sameer Hinduja says, “We’ve seen cases where you have a girl that might be working with a man, and once the picture is sent  — of course solicited by the girl — the whole act is handed over to the man who then proceeds with the sextortion.”
“The aggressor seems to know the words in order to capture the victim’s attention,” added Hinduja.  “Eventually it devolves into flirting and then of course the requesting of sexual images and perhaps the offering of sending their own sexual images in order to titillate the teen.”
The advice in this column comes from the Guide to Teen Sextortion, published this week by ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit internet safety organization that I lead. It was co-written by our COO Maureen Kochan and me with technical advice from Joe Laramie.
Even though it may be an uncomfortable conversation, parents should speak with their kids about this crime and encourage them to come to you if they suspect a criminal may have targeted them. You may want to let them know proactively that they won’t be in trouble if they messed up. Explain that protecting them and helping them is more important than punishing them. The criminal is counting on them to feel embarrassed, afraid, or isolated, so it’s important for the teen to have backup. “Let them know that no problem is too big that you can’t make it through,” Laramie said.
Encourage them to block or ignore messages from strangers and never communicate with someone who wants to “meet up” on another game or platform. Criminals often lure victims from a well-monitored online environment to one where dangerous messages are less likely to be detected, such as an encrypted messaging platform.
Remind your children to never talk about sex with strangers. Encourage them to block anyone who says, posts, or does something that makes them feel uncomfortable.
If it happens
Laramie recommends first creating a case report with CyberTipline, operated by the nonprofit National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (800-843-5678 or Cybertipline.org). He also recommends contacting your local law enforcement. If you don’t get good or quick response there, contact your local FBI field office, which has special procedures in place for handling cases of sextortion of minors.
Children and teens who are not comfortable reaching out to law enforcement should seek the help of a trusted adult, a friend, or an anonymous crisis hotline or chat service, online or via phone. These can be found all over the U.S. and in many other countries. This is a good option if you prefer to remain anonymous while exploring how to proceed, and crisis lines can often refer you to a victim advocate or other legal adviser near you, or visit CrisisChat.org. You can also call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Hotline.
Victims can recover
If your child is targeted, let them know that they will recover from whatever embarrassment these images may cause. Your child needs to know that – as bad as they feel about this situation – it will get better. Being a victim of sextortion can be humiliating, embarrassing, and depressing. If your child is victimized, provide as much support as they need and consider consulting a mental health professional to help them recover from the trauma. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has advice for people seeking to remove nude or sexually exploitative content taken when they were a child.
Tragically, there have been a few reported cases of teens dying by suicide after a sextortion threat. Such tragedies are very rare relative to the number of teens who have been threatened, but it’s important for all young people to know that they can and most likely will recover from major traumas, as painful as they may be at first.
While most young people will never be a victim of this crime, the 5% figure from the Cyberbullying Research Center and recent reports from the FBI are enough to put this on the radar of youth and those who care for them. Again, there is no reason to panic or pull the plug on the internet, but as with all things, it’s important to reduce risk through awareness and prevention.
You can find the Guide to Teen Sextortion Scams and the podcast interview with Joe Laramie at ConnectSafely.org/Sextortion.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.
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