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Shrouded in Sh@me and $ecrecy

Shrouded in Sh@me and $ecrecy

  • This story originally appeared in the February 2024 relationship issue of COMO Magazine.
Sextortion: Dark Hooded Figure

Online sextortion targeting teens is increasing at an alarming rate.

The desperate and sometimes tragic stories of teens caught up in internet sextortion scams continue to play out nationally — and locally — at an alarming rate. Last year, an outgoing and athletic Michigan high school homecoming king died by suicide just six hours after receiving an Instagram message from who he thought was a teenage girl.

The girl convinced the victim to send explicit photos of himself in exchange for similar, graphic photos of her. After he sent the requested photos, the “girl” turned out to be two Nigerian men who threatened to send the young man’s photos to his friends and family — unless he paid. Instead, after frantic and unsuccessful efforts to negotiate with the scammers, the teen put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

“There are other kiddos who have done the same thing,” says Detective Tracy Perkins, who works with the Boone County Sheriff’s Office Cyber Crimes Task Force. In December 2023, the Cyber Crimes Task Force had 35 open cases, and half of them were related to online sextortion.

Sextortion Overwhelming Text Bubbles

The term refers to individuals — primarily children and young adolescents — who are solicited for explicit photos and videos of themselves and then blackmailed for money to keep the photos and videos from ending up in the hands of friends and family members. The FBI reported some 7,000 cases of sextortion in 2022. By the middle of 2023, that number had doubled. 

Perkins says law enforcement is certain that the cases are vastly underreported. An FBI news release in 2022 said the number that year was closer to 100,000 or higher. She adds that sextortion is not limited to underage victims. Adults and married partners have also been victimized.

“Mostly it’s males who are victims of this kind of crime,” Perkins explains. “Kids are naive. When you have that naiveness and you have those hormones, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

She also sees “a twist” that she expects will become more common among teen girls and young women. A Jefferson City teen was solicited by a male who offered to pay her to send him photos of her feet. The girl sent the photos; the money never came.

“The content didn’t contain anything illegal, but it was obscene and embarrassing on her part,” Perkins says. “He started sextorting her and she was like, ‘Holy crap.’”

Meanwhile, a detective in New York was working on a similar “feet pic” case and discovered that the suspect was a Columbia man who was sextorting other girls.

“One girl in Iowa was paying big dollars to shut him up,” Perkins says.

When those incidents reach the Cyber Crimes Task Force or other law enforcement, it’s usually because a victim’s parents discovered what happened. The secrecy that shrouds sextortion and other internet crimes such as enticement of a child and even child porn is the main reason the crimes are underreported, she adds.

“When kids know they’ve been had, they either take their chances and don’t say anything — just let it go — or they pay the person maybe hundreds of dollars and never hear from that person again,” Perkins explains. It comes to a parent’s attention when the child eventually tells a parent or guardian, or the parent does their own internet sleuthing to discover what’s going on.

“There are kids who are tough, they’re just like, ‘It doesn’t bother me. Who cares?’,” she says. “What concerns me the most are those kids who are keeping that a secret, and their mental wellness. You’re not going to tell me they’re not thinking about that.” 

The University of Missouri Police Department receives reports of sextortion and related internet crimes, but the department does not have a specific classification for those crimes. As a result, it’s difficult to report how many cases have been reported, says Hannah Wiscern, MUPD public information officer.

Sextortion Shattered Phone Screen

MUPD works with various campus departments, including student affairs, “to make sure that information on preventing and reporting sextortion is available to students,” Wiscern adds. There’s also a list of resources for students who report sextortion victimization as well as tips for staying safe online and what to do if a student is being exploited because of images that were sent to someone.

The number of sextortion and related cyber crimes have increased significantly nationwide since the COVID pandemic, but Perkins isn’t sure why. Unfortunately, a lack of task force staff limits how much Perkins and her team can investigate.

“We have to be really selective. We can’t go after everyone because we just don’t have enough manpower to do that,” she says.

The Boone County Sheriff’s Office Cyber Crimes Task Force was created in 2007 in response to the need to investigate computer related crimes, specifically crimes against children. The task force is a member of Missouri Internet Crime Against Children Task Force. The primary goal of the task force is to prevent victimization by cyber criminals and to educate citizens on preventive measures to protect them from cybercrimes.

Perkins doesn’t mince words about where that education and prevention needs to start: At home with the child’s parents or guardian. Federal guidelines require children to be thirteen or older to access any social media account, yet Perkins is aware of children as young as eight who are allowed unfettered access to social media.

“When you have an eight-year-old on social media — are you kidding?” she says. “What [parents] don’t realize is [their kids] are intermingling with adults. They don’t send a little eight-year-old to the mall and tell to hang out with adults. They know there are a lot of creepy people out there. So why do they let them get on social media to do the same thing?”

Even well-intentioned parents who give their kids a cell phone to use for emergencies must set boundaries and expectations and install filters that limit or prohibit access to social media platforms.

“Giving a ten-year-old a phone with no filtering or anything on it? It’s like giving them a loaded gun,” Perkins stresses. “There’s just so much that can be prevented by the parents, and what the child has full access to.”

The task force sees a lot of reactive prevention — after the incident has occurred — rather than proactive prevention.

“Parents need to have those awkward conversations with our kids,” she says. “It’s not a one-time conversation, but not every day because you’ll wear them out. But don’t think by telling them once you’ll think they know better.”

Modeling healthy boundaries in relationships and making sure children know how to set boundaries are crucial skills, especially when it comes to social media and internet use, she adds.

“It’s a lot of reiterating, talking about boundaries,” Perkins says. “You can tell kids all day, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ but they don’t care because they feel safe sitting on the other side of the screen thinking they won’t be touched.”

The most common platforms for sextortion victimization are Instagram and Snapchat. Perkins says parents should learn about the screening apps available and be sure those are installed on a child’s social media and browsing apps.

Parents should be prepared for new technology, new online trends, and the changing methods of cyber criminals. And expect to see more use of artificial intelligence in creating personas that a child might think is a real person.

“It’s going to get crazy,” she adds. 

Meanwhile, there’s a good possibility that the criminals who victimized the Michigan football star will be prosecuted. Perkins said the Department of Homeland Security, which is becoming more involved in sextortion investigations, managed to track the internet provider address to geolocate the suspects in Nigeria. The men were arrested and extradited to the United States.

“It’s very lucrative,” Perkins says. “These offenders take their chances. If you scammed fifty people and they give you $50, in a third world country, that’s a lot of money.” 

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