By Clair McFarland, General Assignment Reporter
A Wyoming police department on Tuesday echoed an FBI warning to monitor children during the public school holiday break to prevent financial sextortion, a digital crime that has exploded this year.
Financial sextortion is when online predators, usually through fake profiles, convince people to create explicit videos or photos of themselves. The predators then threaten to release the files unless the person sends money or gift cards, according to a Tuesday statement by the FBI and other federal entities.
Predators this year have targeted thousands of children, especially boys.
“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in the statement. “Many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers.”
Law enforcement throughout 2022 have received more than 7,000 reports related online financial sextortion of minors, the statement says. Of that number, authorities have discovered at least 3,000 victims, “primarily boys.”
More than a dozen suicides have resulted, the statement adds.
A 24-year-old Malaysian man implicated in sextorting at least six minor victims in Wyoming, and others, was arrested in September following collaboration between Wyoming’s Division of Criminal Investigation and other agencies.
The FBI called the case one of its “most prolific and malicious sextortion schemes.”
As Young As 10
Jeff Bullard, lieutenant for the Casper Police Department, said local Wyoming law enforcement has seen a similar uptick in financial sextortion against children and adults.
Bullard’s first brush with the crime type was about seven years ago when he was still a patrol officer, he said. But Casper PD now receives about one report a month of sextortion or similar crimes.
Children are the most vulnerable victims.
“Obviously, the ones we’re really concerned about are the kiddos, because that can be detrimental to their developing mental health,” said Bullard. “They’re more easily manipulated too.”
The FBI statement says the schemes often originate outside the United States, including in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, and victims are often between 14 and 17 years old.
But, the statement adds, “the FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10 years old.”
In the case of young boys, predators are known to pose as attractive females on social media.
‘Be A Good Parent’
Bullard said there are warning signs for which communities, especially parents, should be alert. These include, but are not limited to, seclusion, secrecy around digital devices and depression.
“Not wanting to share their devices with parents is a huge red flag,” he said.
Parents should be fully engaged in their children’s digital lives, Bullard said. There are digital tracking apps and message tracking apps parents can use.
“(Be) a good parent,” said Bullard. “(Make) sure you’re monitoring what your child is doing on their digital devices.”
Bullard said it’s also smart to prepare children before they have any online social exposure: tell them what sort of behavior, requests and connections are inappropriate.
“But also have an open dialogue with your kids and make them feel comfortable that if something does happen, they can come talk to you about it,” said Bullard.
The FBI statement also addresses the need to help children be open about sextortion.
“Victims may feel like there is no way out – it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone,” said Wray in the statement.
Bullard said in some cases, the sextortioners are bluffing.
“We’ve had a couple of cases (in which) we have them sever that connection with the person trying to do the extortion, and nothing negative occurs because of severing that connection,” said Bullard.
The FBI statement says agreeing to pay the predator “rarely” stops the blackmail and harassment.
Don’t Make The Video
Bullard also cautioned potential sextortion victims – both children and adults – not to take the bait.
“If you don’t want your friends or family knowing what you’ve been doing, very potentially embarrassing situations both personally, and professionally in some cases, then you probably shouldn’t be doing those things,” he said.
The FBI warned that young people may feel most comfortable in online environments like social media and gaming sites.
“Criminals who lurk in platforms on the internet are not as anonymous as they think,” said Steve K. Francis, acting director for Homeland Security Investigations, in the statement. “HSI will continue to leverage cutting-edge technology to end these heinous acts.”
The FBI encourages victims and others to report sextortion crimes at 1-800-CALL-FBI or at tips.fbi.gov.
The statement also says to:
- Report the predator’s account on the web platform.
- Don’t delete messages or their profile connection.
- Visit the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org.
- Ask for help.
- Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you don’t feel you have adults in your corner.