Anonymous adults pretending to be children online initiate contact with unsuspecting juvenile victims, gaining their trust to exchange explicit photos. Once they have them, the strangers demand more lewd images or money, but this time under the threat of humiliation.
Law enforcement calls the crime “sextortion,” and it has been increasing and evolving in the past few years, said the new head of the FBI in Las Vegas, Special Agent in Charge Spencer Evans.
“I think we’re constantly playing catch-up with criminals in a variety of ways, and in this arena in particular,” he said Thursday.
The practice has been going on for years, and it used to affect mostly young, “vulnerable” girls, Evans said. But in recent years, boys increasingly have been targeted.
One theory for the increase in cases is that the pandemic allowed for children to live more of their time online, Evans said.
Comparative data on the increase of cases was not available, but the FBI said it received more than 18,000 sextortion reports in 2021, with monetary losses to the victims of nearly $14 million.
The proliferation of ways to communicate on the internet, such as video games, social media, dating apps and anonymous messaging apps, has also made it more challenging to stop, Evans said.
That is because the perpetrators take conversations to encrypted messaging apps, which makes suspects harder to track by law enforcement, and then save pictures or record video without the young victims’ knowledge, Evans said.
Often, the criminals tell the children that they can not report it because the juveniles could face child pornography charges for sharing the images.
But that is not true, Evans said.
“We always treat the juvenile victims of these crimes as victims, because they are being targeted by adults who have nefarious purposes in mind,” he said.
The 56 FBI field offices in the U.S. have agents dedicated to combat sex crimes against children, and suspects who have been identified, arrested and prosecuted have faced steep prison sentences, Evans said.
Evans encouraged parents talk to their children about internet dangers.
“We really need parents to be mindful that this threat is pervasive, that it’s increased across the United States,” he said.
When the crime is detected, the victims should save the digital interactions, the agency said in a news release.
“Tell law enforcement everything about the encounters you had online; it may be embarrassing, but it is necessary to find the offender,” the release said.
More information from the FBI can be obtained here.
Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rickytwrites.