MISSING IN KANSAS: Reports of sextortion on rise, targeting kids

Written by Annette Lawless

New data shows more people are seeing a scam come into their e-mails: sextortion. A scammer threatens to share compromising images of the victim unless they get money in return. In 2018, the FBI says it cost victims $83 million. 


The threat isn’t limited to adults. The FBI says kids can be manipulated into giving money, sex or illicit images to predators. 

An adult may coerce the child to send a picture, and then the adult threatens to release the picture to the child’s friends at school, group or parents. The adult may pretend to be anyone, like a 16-year-old online gamer. They may offer cheat codes, coupons or other things to advance in the game. At the same time, they’re building trust with the child.

“So, it’s really important to have your guard up to know that if someone was contacting you saying that there’s something, there’s a good chance they may not be,” said FBI Special Agent Brian Herrick. “They’re looking to get access to you , they’re looking to talk to you, and they’re trying to encourage you to produce imagery so they can us that imagery to coerce you to produce more.”

Herrick said any child can be a victim fo this crime. “Whether they’re on honor roll, whether they’re a star athlete, boys or girls,” he said. “But, we have to encourage them to make smart decisions when they’re online.” 

Between October 2013 and April 2016, there were 1,428 reports of sextortion of minors made to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tipline. Between 2015 to 2018, there were 5,017 reports of sextortion made to the same tipline. About 78 percent of the cases involved females, 15 percent involved males and the remainder were undermined. The victims were anywhere from 8 to 17 years old. 


The FBI launched a campaign this fall, sharing posters with schools to help educate kids about sextortion: identifying it and reporting it. Some victims feel like they should no report it because they’d get in trouble or there’s no way out, Herrick said. Yet, the FBI hopes to end the cycle of crime. 

“Gone are the days when we told people to keep the family computer in the living room so that they parents could keep an eye on them,” Herrick said. “Now, with kids with tablets and smartphones, many times they’re having to make those really hard decisions when they’re not under the watchful eye of their parent. So having those good conversations about what’s appropriate behavior is more important now than ever.” 


According to NCMEC, those involved in the extortion of children often approach kids on social media after learning of the young one’s interests, friends, school and family. They may move conversations to multiple platforms, like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other places too. They may pretend to work for a modeling agencies to get sexual images of the child. 


There are certain behaviors that may increase the risk of a child to be a victim to sextortion. NCMEC says some of these behaviors include: 

  • Lying about his or her age to access platforms which would allow a child to communicate with older individuals
  • Initiating contact with an individual online or offering to provide sexually explicit images to the individual in exchange for financial compensation, alcohol or drugs, gifts, etc.
  • Sending sexually explicit photos or videos (known as “sexts”) of oneself to another individual

The FBI offers tips on “How to Talk About Sextortion with Your Kids: Three 30-Second Conversations,” for parents who want more information.

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