Last year the U.S. Department of Justice warned that sextortion is by far the fastest growing threat to children. They learned this shocking info by surveying investigators, prosecutors, and victim service providers to determine the biggest threats in child sexual exploitation.
More than 60 percent of survey respondents indicated that online extortion of minors was on the rise. (Keep reading to find out what an internet crime detective advises about how to keep your child safe from sextortion.)
So what’s the actual definition of “sextortion”? According to the FBI,
Sextortion is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.
An FBI video explains:
Detectives are on the front lines of crime and know better than anyone the risks kids face in both their physical and virtual worlds.
Recently I spoke to Darryl Judge, a detective sergeant with our regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) police task force. I asked him for typical scenarios of how kids get pulled into sextortion and what parents can do to keep their kids safe online.
3 Ways Kids are Victimized by Sextortion
#1. Sexting with a known person
The first way Detective Judge described is one we are all familiar with–sexting. A child is in a relationship with another known person and shares compromising photos and videos to show their love and trust. At some point the boyfriend or girlfriend who has the photos decides to use them for control or blackmail, threatening to share them on social media or within popular apps if the sender doesn’t comply.
#2. Sending photos to an online stranger (who may be part of a sextortion ring)
Predators meet a child online, in a game or an app (like Musical.ly or Live.ly), build a relationship and then exploit that relationship. The kid thinks they are in a romantic relationship and sends compromising pictures and videos of themselves.
What kids don’t realize is that there are organized groups out there who target them for sextortion. According to Detective Judge, they move these kids through a series of “handlers” that are specialized in each phase of the sextortion. All the while the kid thinks they are dealing with just one caring, trustworthy “friend” or romantic interest. Here’s how it works:
- A child meets an online “friend” on a monitored mainstream social media website and begins a conversation.
- Once the relationship is started, the child is enticed to move over to a less-monitored and encrypted messenger site or chat app. The child doesn’t know that he or she is now dealing with a different person who is highly skilled at developing this relationship and getting sexual photos and videos.
- After the child has delivered the photos and/or videos, they are handed off to a third specialist who is skilled at extortion. And now the terror begins. This “friend” demands money or more explicit videos in exchange for keeping the videos or pics off of the child’s social media.
The kids are given specific instructions of the type of video to produce–in effect, they are being blackmailed into producing child pornography. They are asked to masturbate with a particular toy or object. The requests for certain sex acts become more and more extreme and horrible.
Meanwhile, the kid is freaking out because their parents don’t know and they suffer with a tremendous amount of shame. Highly functioning kids become distraught and mentally ill–cutting themselves or engaging in other forms of self-harm.
These organized sextortionists are often based in other countries, out of the jurisdiction of the U.S., which makes prosecution more difficult.
These young victims are typically between the ages of 11 to 18, and they hope, “If I can just send them one more photo, he’ll go away and I’ll be free.”
Here’s the story of a young woman who was caught in a sextortion scam as a teen.
#3. Getting trapped by a sextortion ring on a porn site
A kid may go into a forum or chat room on a porn site where they believe they’re interacting sexually with a real model or porn star. What the kid doesn’t know is that they’re actually not interacting with a live person; instead, they’re watching a video loop that is controlled by a predator. And the predator uses the child’s camera to record everything the child is doing, from stripping to masturbating. And then the extortion begins, demanding money or even more graphic videos.
Can you imagine the fear, shame and hopelessness a child might feel being caught in this trap? Of course they shouldn’t have been on a porn site, but few kids have any idea what they’re getting into when they come in contact with a sextortion ring. And even young adults fall prey to these sophisticated operations with tragic results.
What parents can do to protect kids from sextortion
Start conversations early–the earlier the better!
At least by the time a child is given a smartphone, start discussing the realities of sextortion. Help them understand the problems that come with sharing any kind of compromising photos–that the supposed social benefits are not worth the risks. (See these 5 tips for talking to kids about pornography to get you started!)
Help kids come up with scripted replies to deal with requests for nude photos.
In the New York Times best-selling book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teens (affiliate link), author Nancy Jo Sales describes children as young as 11 being asked for nude pics of themselves. Girls learn that if they refuse, boys may get back by starting horrible rumors on social media or apps. (One way girls cope is to use humor to put the guys off instead of confronting them and risking revenge.)
Apply the same common sense to the virtual world as you use in the physical world.
Detective Judge explained: If a stranger came up to you in a store and struck up a conversation, saying they wanted to be your friend, some warning bells might go off, right? And if you kept meeting them at the store and the conversations turned sexual, all of your warning bells would go off! But somehow meeting complete strangers online feels somehow “safer” because you can shut off the computer or close the app. What kids need to know is that online strangers can wield a lot of power once you begin to trust them and give them information or photos.
Police advice: Only allow your kids to have “online friends” they know in their physical world. Get to know the friends your children have friended or followed online.
Parents have two choices
They can pretend this problem doesn’t exist and believe it will never happen to their kids, or they can prepare their kids with awareness of the real threats out there. The second choice empowers children to protect themselves if a predator begins to engage with them online. The first leaves them vulnerable–and those are the kids predators are searching for everyday, every hour.
Do you want to learn more about protecting your kids from sextortion? For more information and to report cases of sextortion, police recommend parents visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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