Federal agencies warn of an explosion of financial 'sextortion' cases

The FBI, in collaboration with other agencies, warned that in 2022, more than 3,000 minors were victims of this type of online blackmail.

During the past year, more than 3,000 people, mainly children and teenagers, were victims of online blackmail in financial "sextortion" schemes. Of these, more than a dozen ended up committing suicide, authorities said.

A report conducted by the FBI, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) warned of an explosion of incidents of underage children who are forced to send explicit images online and extorted for money, a crime known as financial sextortion.

In total, more than 7,000 cases of sextortion were reported nationwide. Most of these blackmail schemes originated in West African countries such as Nigeria or Ivory Coast, according to the report.

The Christmas season may see an increase in cases

FBI Director Christopher Wray explains that the main problem facing the authorities is that many of those affected are afraid to acknowledge that they were victims:

The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys—and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers. The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does. Victims may feel like there is no way out—it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.

In addition, the agencies warned that the holiday season is one of the most dangerous times for young people who may fall prey to these schemes. For this reason, they decided to launch a "sextortion awareness campaign" in schools with the intention of teaching children about the warning signs before they start their Christmas vacations, a period when children spend more time online.

How does financial "sextortion" work?

As a senior FBI official explained Monday to CBS News, predators "generally target male children between the ages of 14 and 17." However, victims are not only limited to this age group, as they also confirmed that they are aware of cases involving "children as young as 10."

Lauren Coffren, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, explained that financial sextortion works as follows:

What we typically see is that individuals or bad actors will use fake profiles or accounts, using typically female photographs as their profile pictures. They may set up their profiles to be geographically similar in locations as the child victim. They may try to share similar interests.

To do so, a senior Justice Department official explained, predators target children "primarily on social media sites, on Instagram and Facebook. Once initial contact is made, then there is a movement of the minor over to a secondary, messaging platform," such as Snapchat or Google Hangouts.

If you suspect your child may be a victim of sextortion, the FBI encourages victims to notify their local field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI or report it online at tips.fbi.gov. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also shared a press release about steps parents should take if they discover their child is a victim of sexual extortion.