CLEVELAND (WJW) – The FBI is warning all parents and caregivers of a critically emerging threat to all children called “sextortion.”

The FBI says any child who uses video games, social media or other apps is potentially at risk. They recorded tens of thousands of cases last year alone.

“Our children are not protected. That is a fact,” said Susan Licate, Cleveland FBI Public Affairs Officer.

The FBI defines sextortion as a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors or money.

It starts as harmless interactions online with the predator pretending to be a minor also, and then it escalates.

Right now, a number of cases involve perpetrators pretending to be young girls and preying upon teen boys.

“They’re typically between the ages of 14 to 17 years old and, again, it’s building that trust. It’s the promise of romance and it goes down hill from there real quick,” said Licate.

Kids of all ages and every ethnic and socioeconomic group are becoming victims, with some as young as eight.

Licensed Clinical Counselor Ann Marie Petricca says that’s because children are not fully developed and have little life experience to call upon.

“Their cognitive functioning, their emotional reasoning all those things are not fully developed yet,” said Petricca.

Once it happens, they become afraid to tell their parents or adults, many not realizing that they are the victim and the adult is the criminal.

“They don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to be shamed in school. They also don’t, know you, recover from things in life,” said Petricca,  “They don’t see this is high school or middle school and if they tell their parent, they can help them through it. It is so temporary.”

Prevention is key, she says, and begins with good communication and monitoring.

“As honest as you can be for their age level, tell them what kind of bad people there can be in the world. Scare them a little bit,” said Petricca. “Tell them how much you’d miss them if something were to happen to them.”

Some additional preventative tips from the FBI Include:

  • Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you.
  • Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
  • Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen.
  • Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
  • Be in the know. Any content you create online—whether it is a text message, photo, or video—can be made public. And once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.
  • Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator or go to an adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.

Learn more from the FBI here.

Licate says victims can remain anonymous and must know it’s not their fault.

“I understand the fear that some may have, but stopping online predatorial behavior is of upmost importance.”

To report suspected sextortion, call 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324).