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“Financial sextortion,” a type of cybercrime that targets teens and tweens, is on the rise.
Reports of financially motivated sextortion involving minors increased at least 20% from October 2022 to March 2023 relative to the same six-month period the prior year, the FBI said in January.
“Sextortion is a rapidly escalating threat,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in December. “There have been way too many teenagers victimized and they don’t know where to turn.”
Criminals coerce kids — typically males ages 14 to 17 — into creating and sending sexually explicit material such as photos and videos, often by pretending to be “alluring young girls,” the FBI said.
Predators then blackmail victims, threatening to release that content to friends, family and social media followers unless they receive payment, perhaps in the form of money or gift cards. Even if paid, scammers often demand more and escalate threats, the FBI said.
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The damage isn’t just financial: Some victims, feeling embarrassed, afraid and isolated, have turned to self-harm and suicide, the agency said.
Financial sextortion is the fastest-growing crime targeting children in North America and Australia, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute. Incidents in those regions are up 1,000% in the past 18 months, it said.
Data is almost certainly understated since it relies on reported incidents, experts said.
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In the past, predators had largely used sextortion for their “sexual gratification and control” but are now mostly motivated by greed, the FBI said.
Nearly all activity is linked to a West African cybercriminal gang, the Yahoo Boys, who primarily target English-speaking minors and young adults on social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Wizz, according to the NCRI.
“This disturbing growth in child sexual exploitation is driven by one thing: changes in technology,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday at a hearing with leaders of social media companies including Meta, Snap, TikTok, Discord and X.
To that point, 65% of Generation Z across six countries, including the U.S., said they or their friends had been targeted in online sextortion schemes, according to recent research by Snap.
In such cases, predators obtained sensitive material via “catfishing” — persuading victims to send photos by pretending to be someone they’re not — or “hacking” — gaining unauthorized access to electronic devices or social media accounts to steal images — Snap said.
In its report, Snap said it offers (and encourages young people to use) in-app blocking and reporting tools related to sextortion.
All written and visual content in the Wizz app is moderated and age verification required, according to a spokesperson, adding: “We have zero tolerance for scams and inappropriate behavior of any kind on the platform.”
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, which owns Instagram, was told by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during a Senate online child safety hearing on January 31, that he and other social media company officials “have blood on [their] hands” for lax child safety. Zuckerberg apologized to parents who attended the hearing, saying “no one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”
He also said Meta has invested more than $20 billion in safety and security since 2016 and is committed to making the internet “safer for everyone.”
Wealthy households may be more at risk
Kids from affluent households — those with annual income of $150,000 or more — are most likely to be victims of cyber extortion and cyberbullying, according to a recent paper by Javelin Strategy & Research, a consulting firm.
For example, 37% of higher-earning households have kids who’ve been extorted, compared with just 5% of those making less than $50,000 a year and 10% of those making $50,000 to $100,000, Javelin found.
Wealthy parents are more likely to be lenient about social media use. They more often believe tweens should have their own accounts, meaning children have accounts in their own names and with their own images, while using their own credentials to log in and manage them, according to the Javelin report.
Further, kids from high-income homes may be more visible to predators because of increased access to paid online accounts, such as those for online gaming and streaming services, the report also said.
Criminals also understand they’re more likely to get a bigger payout from wealthier individuals, said Tracy Kitten, director of fraud and security at Javelin. They may also have more digital devices such as smartphones and gaming systems, and a larger digital footprint, she said.
More broadly, there was an uptick during the Covid-19 pandemic of kids having access to their parents’ financial accounts, perhaps to pay for home food deliveries, for example, giving them an outlet to pay predators, Kitten said.
It’s unclear how much the average sextortion victim loses or how much victims have lost in aggregate. An FBI spokesperson didn’t respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
However, one recent example suggests big profits for criminals. In November, the U.S. indicted a Nigerian national, Olamide Oladosu Shanu, and four co-conspirators in the “largest known financial sextortion operation to date,” alleging Shanu’s enterprise received more than $2.5 million in bitcoin from victim payments, according to the NCRI report.
Crime rings are distributing instructional videos and scripts about the frauds on TikTok, YouTube and Scribd, fueling an uptick in sextortion, the NCRI said.
There are steps parents can take to protect their children from financial sextortion, according to privacy experts and law enforcement officials:
Don’t assume your child is safe. The FBI has interviewed victims as young as 8 years old, and across all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, the agency said. “The victims are honor-roll students, the children of teachers, student athletes, etc.,” the agency said. “The only common trait is internet access.”
Know that social media, gaming and other digital platforms pose risks. Sextortion can start on any site, app, messaging platform or game where people meet and communicate, according to the FBI.
“Parents should closely monitor their child’s phone/online use and be very cognizant of whom they are communicating, or gaming with no matter the platform their child is using to gain online access,” Chris Hill, an NCRI board member and chairman of the Police Athletic League, a nonprofit youth development group, wrote in an email.
Review internet and social media use, settings. Caregivers can put limits on internet use or spot check apps and communication on digital devices, the FBI said. They can also consider rules against using devices in bedrooms or take steps such as shutting off internet access at night. Checking security settings on social media and keeping accounts private, instead of public, can also reduce risk.
Communicate. Open lines of communication and information-sharing between parents and children are the “best defense,” the FBI said. Children need to know such crimes are happening, the agency said. Explain that any photo or video has the potential to become public. Crucially, let kids know they always can come to you for help. The FBI has additional tips for caregivers to talk to children about sextortion.
“Parents should have a conversation with their child/children to let them know that there is nothing they can’t come to them with, and that they are open for tough or uncomfortable conversations at any time,” Hill wrote.
Invest in identity protection services for the whole family. Such digital services, such as NortonLifeLock, Aura and Identity Guard, generally monitor activity on social media and the dark web, looking for instances of a child’s personal information or likeness being compromised, for example, Kitten said.
Sign up for alerts about a child’s transactions from financial accounts or peer-to-peer services for signs of suspicious activity, Kitten said.
Be on the lookout for behavior, such as withdrawal or depression, that’s out of the ordinary, Kitten said.
Be conscious of your own habits. Parents’ social media behavior — for example, oversharing and making too much personal information public — can “set poor examples” for kids, Javelin wrote. Public posts that openly share about vacations, school field trips and birthdays, for example, also create road maps for cybercriminals, the Javelin report said.
Contact law enforcement immediately upon learning of any unwanted inappropriate contact, Hill said. Parents can call 1-800-CALL-FBI or visit tips.fbi.gov to report incidents. If sexually explicit images have been shared, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Take it Down tool or Is Your Content Out There? for potential removal, the FBI said.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect comments attributable to Chris Hill, an NCRI board member and chairman of the Police Athletic League, a nonprofit youth development group.
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