Students in many high schools and middle schools will soon be walking by FBI posters warning them of a crime that begins on their smartphones, computers, and game consoles.
“The goal of our ‘Stop Sextortion Campaign’ is to alert young people to one of the risks that they can encounter online,” said Supervisory Special Agent Brian Herrick, assistant chief of the FBI’s Violent Crime Section. “Both youth and caregivers need to understand that a sexual predator can victimize children or teens in their own homes through the devices they use for gaming, homework, and communicating with friends.”
Sextortion begins when a predator reaches out to a young person over a game, app, or social media account. Through deception, manipulation, money and gifts, or threats, the predator convinces the young person to produce an explicit video or image. When the young person starts to resist requests to make more images, the criminal will use threats of harm or exposure of the early images to pressure the child to continue producing content.
“These predators are really good at targeting youth,” said Special Agent Kiffa Shirley in the FBI’s Billings Resident Agency in Montana. Shirley recently investigated a case where the criminal offered money in exchange for explicit images from teens. That man, Tyler Daniel Emineth, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crimes.
“Young people don’t seem to have an on-guard mentality when it comes to strangers contacting them through the internet,” Shirley said. “And many teens feel less inhibited about sharing online.”
That sense of trust and comfort allows a criminal to coerce a young person into creating and sending an image, which begins the cycle of victimization.
The Stop Sextortion campaign seeks to inform students of the crime so they know how to avoid risky situations online and know to ask for help if they are being victimized.
FOLLOWING ARE A FEW QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FROM THE FBI
Read the entire Q & A with the FBI online with this story at myfenton.com.
What is sextortion?
Sextortion describes a crime that happens online when an adult convinces a person who is younger than 18 to share sexual pictures or perform sexual acts on a webcam.
How does it start?
Sextortion can start on any site where people meet and communicate. Someone may contact you while you are playing a game online or reach out over a dating app or one of your social media accounts.
In some cases, the first contact from the criminal will be a threat. The person may claim they already have a picture or video of you that they will share if you don’t send more pictures. More often, however, this crime starts when young people believe they are communicating with someone their own age who is interested in a relationship or someone who is offering something of value.
After the criminal has one or more videos or pictures, they use the threat of sharing or publishing that content to get the victim to produce more images.
The adult has committed a crime as soon as they ask a young person for a single graphic image.
Why do young people agree to do this?
The people who commit this crime have studied how to reach and target children and teens.
One person the FBI put in prison for this crime was a man in his 40s who worked as a youth minister so he could learn how teens talked to each other. Then, he created social media profiles where he pretended to be a teenage girl. This “girl” would start talking to boys online and encourage them to make videos.
Another person offered money and new smartphones to his victims.
In one case, the criminal threatened a girl — saying he would hurt her and bomb her school — if she didn’t send pictures.
Other cases start with the offer of currency or credits in a video game in exchange for a quick picture.
How do you know who can be trusted online?
That’s what is so hard about online connections. The FBI has found that those who commit this crime may have dozens of different online accounts and profiles and are communicating with many young people at the same time — trying to find victims.
Be extremely cautious when you are speaking with someone online who you have not met in real life. It’s easy to think: I’m on my phone, in my own house, what could possibly happen? But you can very quickly give a criminal the information and material he needs to do you harm.
But how can this harm me?
It’s true that these criminals don’t usually meet up with kids in real life, but the victims of this crime still experience negative effects. The criminals can become vicious and non-stop with their demands, harassment, and threats. Victims report feeling scared, alone, embarrassed, anxious, and desperate. Many feel like there’s no way out of the situation.
What do I do if this is happening to me?
If you are ready, reach out to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online at tips.fbi.gov. Our agents see these cases a lot and have helped thousands of young people. Our goals are to stop the harassment, arrest the person behind the crime, and help you get the support you need.
If you’re not feeling ready to speak to the FBI, go to another trusted adult. Tell them you are being victimized online and need help. Talking about this can feel impossible, but there are people who can help. You are not the one in trouble.
How can you say I won’t be in trouble?
You are not the one who is breaking the law. This situation can feel really confusing, and the criminals count on you feeling too unsure, scared, or embarrassed to tell someone. Even if this started on an app or site that you are too young to be on. Even if you felt okay about making some of the content. Even if you accepted money or a game credit or something else, you are not the one who is in trouble.
Sextortion is a crime because it is illegal and wrong for an adult to ask for, pay for, or demand graphic images from a minor.
How can I help someone else who is in this situation?
If you learn a friend, classmate, or family member is being victimized, listen to them with kindness and understanding. Tell them you are sorry that this is happening to them and that you want to help. Let them know that they are the victim of a crime and have not done anything wrong. Encourage them to ask for help and see if you can help them identify a trusted adult to tell.
How do I protect myself and my friends?
Awareness and sensible safety practices online, along with a willingness to ask for help, can put an end to this exploitation. The FBI agents who work on these cases want you to know these six things:
Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you.
Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen.
Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
Be in the know. Any content you create online — whether it is a text message, photo, or video — can be made public. And once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.
Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator, or go to an adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.