Editor’s Note: If you or anyone you know is the victim of a crime, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.
(WJW) – If your children have access to the internet, they are also accessible to online predators.
The FBI is tracking an ‘explosion’ in cases involving children and teens being coerced into sending explicit images online and being blackmailed with them.
The increase in the number of children being targeted in sextortion crimes comes as Northeast Ohio lost one of its own.
The 17-year-old, who was making plans for college, died by suicide on Saturday, Nov. 19.
His parents Tamia and Timothy Woods say he was a victim of sextortion. They shared his story so other parents could learn how to protect their children from predators targeting teens online – like the ones who targeted their son before his death.
What is sextortion?
Kids can be targeted on any site, app, messaging platform or game where people can communicate, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Typically, predators send friend requests posing as a person who is their own age.
Online safety expert Jesse Weinberger travels the U.S., talking with families and kids.
Weinberger says sextortion is ‘weaponized attention.’ The predator fakes a safe, friendly and loving persona to build trust, cases show.
Woods believed he was communicating with an attractive young woman, who eventually convinced him to send sexually explicit photos.
Once the photos have been sent, the blackmail begins, the FBI says. Criminals threaten to publish that content and even threaten violence to get the victim to take more photos and videos.
The FBI says the shame cycle is what often prevents kids from asking for help.
The FBI recently issued a national public safety alert about financial sextortion targeting minors.
In these cases, the offender receives sexually explicit material from the child and then threatens to release the compromising material unless the victim sends money and/or gift cards.
The FBI says sextortion has resulted in an alarming number of deaths by suicide.
How common is it?
Over the past year, law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports related specifically to financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides, the FBI says.
“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
Victims as young as 8
The FBI says it has interviewed victims as young as 8 years old. The most common targets are boys between 14 and 17.
Weinberger adds that sextortion happens in all kinds of families.
FBI data shows that sextortion affects children of both genders and crosses all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The victims are honor-roll students, student-athletes, etc. The only common trait among victims, according to the FBI, is internet access.
“Parents—and kids, too—think that if they are home, they are in their safe haven,” Special Agent Kevin Kaufman said. “But these are professional online predators who have perfected their craft. You’re putting them up against 11-, 12-, and 13-year-old children. I have seen victims who were straight-A students. I’ve seen victims who were adults, for that matter.”
Countless unknown victims
Lucas Michael Chansler victimized nearly 350 teenage girls over a several-year period ending in January 2010. To date, the FBI has identified and located only 109 of those victims and is actively working to identify others to help provide them with closure and assistance.
Chansler pled guilty to multiple counts of child pornography production and was sent to prison for 105 years.
Chansler’s case highlights what the FBI believes is a prevalent problem.
“The many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said.
Homeland Security reports a single predator may have hundreds of undiscovered victims around the world due to the shame of reporting the crime.
What if you or your child is a victim?
If you, your child or anyone you know is a victim of a crime, contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) can help get explicit images of the internet.
Report the predator’s account on the platform’s safety feature.
Block the predator and do not delete the profile or messages because it can be helpful to law enforcement.
If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at firstname.lastname@example.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.
Open lines of communication are the best defense against sextortion, according to Homeland Security. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to have conversations with their children early on regarding their online activity.
Here are tips from the Office of Homeland Security:
Have an open dialogue with your kids before they’re exposed to sextortion. Let them know you have their backs if something happens in the future.
Consider limiting your children’s internet use or spot-check their phones and other devices. Keep tabs on the people your children are communicating with; this can be part of an open and ongoing conversation about what is (and isn’t) appropriate online. It also may be worth considering a rule against devices in bedrooms overnight or shutting off Wi-Fi access after a certain time.
Review your child’s social media privacy settings. Keeping accounts private can prevent predators from gathering their personal information.
Keep the door open. Let them know they can come to you and ask for help, and that helping will always be your top priority. If you’re the adult a child trusts with this information, you should comfort them, help them understand they have been the victim of a crime, and help them report it to law enforcement.
Internet safety tips:
Weinberger notes Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act says that children under 13 years old should not have social media accounts.
Don’t accept a friend request from anyone online you don’t know in real life.
Don’t give any personal contact info (email or handles) to anyone you haven’t met IRL.
If someone you don’t know asks for personally identifying information, say no.
Never share your passwords with anyone.
What’s in your bio? Information about your hometown and school can give predators personally identifying information.
Don’t use easy-to-guess passwords, such as pet names, birth dates or anything that someone can guess by reviewing your social media profiles.
Don’t click on links in e-mails that come from people you don’t know; doing so could compromise your device.
Use mobile carrier tools to review which phone numbers are communicating with your child
Be wary of the recording devices you bring into your home. Some low-security devices (such as baby monitors and nanny cams) are easy to exploit.
Assume your webcam or recording devices can be activated remotely. Never have your phone or other electronic camera devices pointed at you while undressing or in a position you would not want to share with the world.
Cover your webcam when you’re not using it; if your webcam doesn’t have a built-in cover, use a sticker or piece of tape to cover it.
Weinberger suggests taking things even further.
Her recommendations include:
Physically taking away phones and tablets at night.
Reducing the amount of time your child spends on devices.
Don’t share photos of children without their permission.
Set all accounts to private.
Where to get help
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children