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How teens are being blackmailed with sexting scams on social media
Oct 25, 2023

How teens are being blackmailed with sexting scams on social media

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Chris Moody, freelance writer for the Washington Post, calls this "sextortion," where an online scammer asks for explicit photos of teen boys, then demands money in exchange for not sending the images to friends and family.

Last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) got more than 10,000 tips about minors extorted in sexting scams. The number is even higher so far this year.

And what authorities are noticing is that in a lot of these cases boys are the target. It often starts with direct messages on social media. Flirting leads to requests for explicit photos. And as soon as they hit send, the person on the other end threatens to share the photos unless they get paid.

Freelance reporter Chris Moody wrote for the Washington Post about what’s being called “sextortion.” The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali. And a warning that it includes a mention of teen suicide.

Chris Moody: Sextortion, of course, is a combination of two words: sex and extortion. We’re usually talking about scammers that are going after girls in hopes of getting explicit images from them online. But what we have seen more recently is financial sextortion that is targeting primarily boys.

Lily Jamali: And one of the boys that you profiled in your piece is a minor, who you refer to as Christopher from Ohio. Tell me his story.

Chris Moody (Courtesy Appalachian State University)

Moody: So Christopher did not have social media. And he was planning on going on a trip with a sports team to Europe. And he said, “Mom, I want to have Instagram, I want to share photos from this amazing trip.” And his parents said, “You’re right. OK, that’s fine.” So he signed up for Instagram for the first time. He goes off to Europe, and within two days, at 3:00am European time, his parents get a string of text messages [from him] that say things like, “I’ve messed up, I don’t know what to do. Someone is trying to scam me for money, I sent photos. I know I shouldn’t have done so.” And they tell him rightly not to send any money. The next morning, they wake up and there is the image of their son, an explicit, graphic photo on the phone of his father. They report it to Instagram, they report it to Meta, all of these things. And they don’t hear back for weeks, [so] the scammer continues to harass. And it was three weeks before that account was taken down. Just an absolutely terrifying experience. And what we described with this family is similar to thousands of other cases. It is basically a playbook of what happens to young men and what is happening by the thousands all over the country.

Jamali: Yeah, how common is this?

Moody: Far more common than you would believe. Let’s start with just official numbers. All of the numbers go through what’s called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. This is a clearinghouse for records of abuse that is then forwarded to law enforcement. In 2022, NCMEC reported 10,000 instances of this happening. In the middle of 2023, that number had increased to 12,500, and growing now that we’re at the end of 2023. Now, that only accounts for reported instances, not ones where people maybe paid the scammers or just blocked the scammers and moved on. You can imagine being a 16-year-old boy not wanting to tell a soul about this, you might keep it private, you might talk about it anonymously on Reddit. There is a subreddit called “sextortion,” that hundreds, if not thousands of young men just looking for support. And they actually really do help each other. It’s an incredible network of young men helping each other out. But the last thing you might want to do is go to law enforcement about you breaking the rules, or your parents, because I’m sure that your parents have sat you down and said “don’t do this.” So you don’t want to tell them. And so I think those numbers are just scratching the surface.

Jamali: And in terms of repercussions, you write that at least a dozen kids have died by suicide after having this happen to them. It’s a lot of kids.

Moody: It’s a lot of kids, and the number has gone up since those numbers came out. It’s looking closer to 18 that we know of now. This happens all over the country and to all types of kids. And I want to emphasize this for parents: as we talk about in the story, there are some parents who have very strict rules on social media and some parents that are pretty permissive about it. Regardless, their child was targeted, and it really can happen to just about anyone who’s exposing themselves to these online platforms. And that’s why it’s so important to speak to your kids and say: if you are ever in any trouble, let’s have an amnesty moment, you can talk to me and you don’t have to worry about you know, being in grounded or in trouble. One of the children who did [die by] suicide was the son of a South Carolina state legislator. And that state legislator is now trying to pass new rules as well in his state, to go after this, to hold social media companies liable for this kind of thing. If this hasn’t happened to your child, it’s probably happened to somebody that they know. And so it is becoming such a pervasive issue that the tech companies are going to respond or lawmakers will or both.

Jamali: Well, it’s a horrifying story, and it makes you wonder what parents are supposed to do. I mean, I think we can agree that keeping kids off of social media probably isn’t very realistic. So, is it more about just helping them be more vigilant? Is there a consensus view on that?

Moody: Experts say that just keeping your kids off of social media completely could, usually in the long run, have harmful effects, because you’re kind of not teaching them to swim when when they’re adults. They’re going to jump in the deep end and you need to prepare them. Even so, if you choose to let them have social media or not, you still need to have conversations with them about this and about the risks and how to handle it. That is the key.

More on this

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988, or by visiting 988lifeline.org.

Chris reports that earlier this year, the FBI joined with law enforcement agencies in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to issue a joint warning about sextortion.

Homeland Security Investigations is targeting the country of Ivory Coast, whose government is communicating with the U.S. about how to charge networks of scammers targeting American teenagers. But, Chris notes, the country doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

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