CLEVELAND (WJW) – The FBI is warning about a frightening twist on an already disturbing crime targeting children that’s increasing across the country. 

“If you have a phone, if you have the internet, you are a potential victim,” said FBI Special Agent Preetham Rao, Cleveland Division Crimes Against Children Coordinator.

In the past perpetrators would lie and try to convince young people to give them inappropriate pictures so they could extort money and/or gift cards and/or sexual favors from them.

Now with artificial intelligence or AI and the ability to easily create “deep fakes,” they can turn any innocent picture online into pornography.

“It’s becoming increasingly more realistic,” said Preetham, “Instead of having to obtain compromising images and videos, they can just go out to your Facebook profile, to Instagram and just grab a family picture or sporting event.”

He says over the past two to three years sextortion has become a “pervasive” and growing problem across the country and in NE Ohio.

There is no part of the country, city, or town that’s immune to it.

“They (perpetrators) may say, hey I’ve already got a picture of you and if you don’t send me a gift card or wire me money, I’m going to share this with all of your friends or followers and that’s how the extortion starts ratcheting it up from there,” he said.

According to the FBI there are thousands of victims, often young males and boys who become scared hopeless and sometimes pushed to suicide.

“In nineteen and a half hours they sent over 200 texts,” said Tamia Woods who’s own 17-year-old son James Woods became a victim of sextortion in November 2022.

James Woods (Courtesy of Streetsboro Police Department/Streetsboro City Schools)

The Streetsboro High School athlete was preparing to graduate and looking at colleges with the support of his loving family when perpetrators tricked him into messaging an inappropriate picture on a social media site.

“He was just a good soul so when those people contacted him it was just so foreign to him, he didn’t know how to process it, ” said Tim Woods, James’s father.

The teen was incessantly badgered and threatened for nearly twenty hours straight.  They demanded money and ultimately began pushing him to commit suicide.

“Saying we’re going to ruin your life, make sure he can’t get into college, his parents wouldn’t love him, his friends wouldn’t like him, he’s going to go to jail… it’s beyond evil,” said Tim and Tamia.

Through their grief the couple started the non-profit foundation “Do It For James” to educate and save other children. 

“We’re an open book with these kids because they need to know,” said Tamia.

While speaking at schools with parents and students over the last 12-months they say they have heard of kids being targeted with AI sextortion, but fortunately because they had heard about James, they told their parents and were not harmed.

The Woods encourage parents to communicate with their children about these threats, even if you think they already know what to do.

“Tell them no matter what, I have your back,” said Tamia.

Other tips include:

  • Tightening security settings on all social media account
  • Limit identifiable information posted online
  • Only share or interact with people you actually know

And Agent Rao says if something does happen, “Take a deep breath and step back because they want to ratchet up panic and anxiety.”

He says remember the three “R’s”:

  • Resist responding 
  • Retain the information, images and messages
  • Report it to police, the platform where they contacted you and the FBI at the internet crimes complaint center

“We investigate and try to track down everything,” he said and oftentimes together with other agencies the images can be quickly taken down.

He also suggested contacting and reporting it to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website “Take It Down” who can help remove the images also. 

Tamia and Tim say do whatever you can so that their story doesn’t become yours.

“Never, never! I would have never thought that this would be our story,” said Tamia.

 “Because that is not who he was, he stayed away from trouble…he was just a good soul,” added Tim.