In today’s digital age, young individuals are presented with amazing new ways to connect and socialise online. But, along with these exciting opportunities, comes an added dread of different ways in which people can be taken advantage of.
Among those is the troubling and growing trend of financial sextortion, and how it’s impacting teenage boys across the world. We’ll explore why there are more and more cases of this happening, why teens might be more at risk, what to do if it happens, and how social media companies are getting involved.
Financial sextortion is a disturbing form of online exploitation that preys on teenagers. Perpetrators, posing as friends or a potential romantic interest, manipulate victims into sharing explicit photos and subsequently demand money under the threat of exposing these photos to their family and friends. In recent years, the number of these cases has surged dramatically.
Teenagers are particularly susceptible to online exploitation. The pressure to fit in, coupled with the allure of digital communication, makes them easy targets. Male teenagers, in particular, are more frequently targeted because they tend to share explicit content more casually or experimentally than girls.
Recently, during research that was conducted by the Washington Post, a few teenage boys decided to open up in regard to their experience with sextortion. Michael, a 17-year-old high school student received a disturbing request from someone he had been chatting with online. This person, who initially appeared friendly and fun, asked Michael for a nude photo, insisting that he include his face in it. Alone in his room, Michael impulsively sent a picture using his mobile phone.
However, things quickly took a sinister turn. The individual, who had built a false sense of trust over weeks of chatting, suddenly demanded that Michael send them hundreds of dollars via Zelle, a digital payments network that operates in the US and is managed by a private financial services company. The threat was clear: if Michael refused to send the money, they would distribute the compromising photo to his family and friends.
Unbeknown to him, Michael had fallen victim to a troubling online scheme known as “financial sextortion.” The threat, as seen in Michael’s case, revolves around the idea that if victims refuse to pay, their explicit images will be disseminated against their will.
According to Lauren Coffren, the executive director of the Exploited Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), these types of online crimes have massively grown in popularity—particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic which saw so many young people isolated inside.
Addressing financial sextortion requires a swift and strategic response. When confronted with such a situation, victims must immediately cease communication with the harasser, block them, and refrain from sending any money.
Another equally important element of this process is reporting the incident to relevant authorities. The FBI, Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and the NCMEC serve as critical channels for reporting and investigating these crimes. As Coffren noted: “They’re using shame, embarrassment and fear, and they’re tapping into that. They’re exploiting children’s worst nightmares.”
Research conducted by the FBI has uncovered the disturbing trend of cybercriminals involved in sextortion—sparing not even the parents of deceased teenagers who fell victim to this ruthless practice. These criminals target innocent teenagers who, in moments of vulnerability, send explicit images, and tragically, many of these teenagers have then taken their own lives as a result.
These cruel gangs resort to threats, informing the parents that unless they comply and make payments, explicit images of their children will be made public.
The consequences of this abuse are profoundly devastating. The FBI has documented that in 2022 alone, at least 12 boys took their own lives as a result of being blackmailed through sextortion. Meanwhile, social media companies are racing to catch up and address the surging wave of sextortion scams that are targeting children.
To mitigate the risks associated with sextortion, parents must engage in open and honest conversations with their children about online safety. Establishing clear rules and boundaries for technology use is crucial. Monitoring tools and parental guidance can provide an additional layer of protection.
While social media platforms are taking steps to combat unhealthy and toxic social media usage among young people, something as delicate as sextortion is difficult to monitor. Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, has implemented policies aimed at enhancing privacy settings for users under 16. Additionally, it has introduced tools to report instances of sextortion. Snapchat has also joined the effort by creating dedicated reporting tools for similar incidents.
Furthermore Meta, in collaboration with Thorn, an organisation dedicated to combating child sex trafficking, launched a dedicated sextortion hub aimed at assisting users in reporting instances of harassment. It has limitations on users aged 19 and older, preventing them from sending messages to teenagers who aren’t on their list of followers. However, it’s important to acknowledge that users can falsify their birthdates when setting up their accounts, therefore potentially bypassing these restrictions.
Unfortunately, the global spotlight turned to financial sextortion in 2022 following the tragic suicide of 17-year-old Jordan DeMay, who had fallen victim to scammers operating from West Africa, as reported in The Washington Post investigation. In response to this incident, three individuals from Nigeria were brought up on charges.
Notably, in August 2023, two of these individuals, Samson and Samuel Ogoshi, who are brothers, were extradited to the United States. They now face charges related to their involvement in an international sexual extortion ring. Both have entered pleas of not guilty, with their legal representatives opting not to provide comments on the matter.
Many cases of sextortion are orchestrated by scammers hailing from West African nations, particularly in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. This international dimension has prompted collaborative efforts among law enforcement agencies to combat the issue effectively.
The rising threat of financial sextortion targeting teenagers demands immediate attention and concerted efforts from parents, educators, law enforcement agencies, and social media companies. Increased awareness, education on online safety, and the implementation of preventive measures are essential steps in protecting the younger generation from this distressing and dangerous phenomenon.