The practice of sextortion is where victims are intimidated with explicit imagery. It’s a growing trend in America. Many teens use Snapchat and Instagram to target this kind of sextortion.
FBI trying to uncover a prolific Instagram fraudster who claimed to be a Californian girl and tricked more than 30 teenager boys and men to send nude photos. If they didn’t pay a certain amount, the images would not be shared with their friends and families. An 18-year old Ventura County girl gave more than $1,500 to the blackmailer. The victim then committed suicide, according to previously unseen court documents. SME.
Since May last year, the scammer has been running the sextortion campaigns. Their identity is unknown. They’ve been particularly aggressive in pursuing payment from victims, in one case threatening violence against a 19-year-old and his family. The scammer also hacked into at least two victims’ Instagram accounts, telling them to hand over passwords to stop their photos from being shared, according to the FBI. Police received no response from the victims, who claimed they had tried unsuccessfully to recover their accounts. They were both unavailable for verification by SME.
So far, law enforcement is unable to find the culprit of this fraud. However, Google Voice messages were returned by search warrants that suggested there could be at least two more victims. Both Ventura County and Justice Department declined to comment. A request to comment was not received by the FBI
With more people working from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and spending more time online as a result, the FBI has documented what it describes as a “huge increase” in reports of sextortion. The agency’s Atlanta office, for example, has received 50 such reports so far in 2022—more than double the full-year total for 2021. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had 12,070 reported of sextortion and online enticement, saw 44,155 reports in 2021. Elsewhere, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line for child exploitation, told SMEIt had already opened 500 cases of sextortion claims in the past month.
“It’s a pandemic,” says John Pizzuro, a former 25-year veteran investigator of child abuse crimes with the New Jersey State Police. “We can’t even keep up with the amount of cases . . . New Jersey’s increase has been 400% over the last four years, and that goes across the U.S. and across the world.”
Teenage boys are another notable target group in the rise and fall of sextortion. Canadian Center for Child Protection stated that 92% of cases where victims were known to be male, in which the gender was unknown, it had investigated. FBI claims that the victims in most of the cases it investigates are boys between the ages 14-17.
This is a significant shift in target. NCMEC data from six years ago showed that 78% of all sextortion cases between 2013-2016 involved women children and 15% involved men.
While the financial cost of sextortion isn’t astronomical compared to other cybercrimes—standing at $13.6 million from 18,000 cases reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2021, compared to $1 billion for romance scams—this form of online extortion is one that has repeatedly proven deadly.
Ventura County death was just the second victim to California sextortion over a period of three months. After being blackmailed by a scammer using an intimate picture he tricked into sharing, a San Jose 17-year old took his own death in February. CNN reported that the FBI still is trying to locate the criminal in this case. In February of this year, in Manitoba Canada, a 17year-old took his own life after being blackmailed for nude photos.
Attention is now turning to tech giants and what they’re doing to protect its young users. According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, most sextortion cases that it examined in July involved Snapchat and Instagram (42% and 38% each). As an example of what the Canadian organization called an Instagram failing, it identified at least 19 unique accounts used to sextort victims all using the same profile picture, “something we would expect their systems to intercept,” says Lianna McDonald, the nonprofit’s executive director. Meta didn’t respond to our request for additional information.
Instagram’s parent company, Meta, and Snapchat declined to comment on the rise in sextortion scams on their platforms. Meta pointed to its support of TopNCII.org, which helps people keep tabs on where their photos are shared, while Snapchat said it had various measures to stop teens chatting with people they didn’t know.
McDonalds believes regulation is necessary in order to push tech companies to be more productive. “Many network and platform design changes could be made to tackle these issues, but our experience has been that serious change won’t happen without regulatory intervention,” she says. “Why? Because changing some of the fundamental design issues that create favorable conditions for predation on many social media platforms would likely undermine aspects of their current business models.”
For anyone who is contemplating suicide, call 800-273-TALK (8255)