By BETHANY BLANKLEY
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) – Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and several federal law enforcement agencies have issued a public safety alert about “an alarming increase” of online exploitation of children and teens.
Referred to as “sextortion,” derived from “sex” and “extortion,” this crime occurs when a victim, “often a child, is threatened or blackmailed, usually online, by a person demanding sexual content (photos/videos) or money from the child against his or her will,” the Department of Justice explains.
Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), issued a public safety alert about “the alarming increase” in cases of sextortion.
On Tuesday, Ms. Moody issued a public safety alert urging parents and guardians to “please talk to your children about this disturbing crime and make sure they know not to take or send explicit images to anyone. Keep an open dialog with your children and urge them to tell you if they are ever asked to exchange inappropriate content.”
Roughly 3,000 minors in the U.S. were victims of sextortion last year, the DOJ reports.
Sextortion occurs “when a child or teen shares an image with someone they thought they knew or trusted, but the individual has gained the child’s trust through deceit, coercion, or deception (and sometimes, predators falsely claim that they have obtained photos that the child may have shared with someone else). Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends additional images, money, or gift cards,” the DOJ explains.
Often, predators demand payment through various apps, but after they receive the money they release the images.
“The shame, fear, and confusion that victims experience when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse,” the DOJ states.
Sextortion schemes occur online using social media and gaming sites or video chat applications. Predators are increasingly creating fake female accounts, DOJ explains, to target adolescent boys between 14- and 17-years old, although it’s uncovered victims as young as 10.
The DOJ has published resources to help Americans recognize online exploitation and sextortion and report it.
Florida’s 2022 Human Trafficking Summit also hosted a session on sextortion that provides additional information.
During the Summit, the Florida Department of Children and Families encouraged parents and guardians to consider taking several precautionary measures. They include being aware of their children’s online activity; requiring them to make their social media accounts private; preventing them from altering or using a fake birth date to access sites online; explaining that online profiles of others may be fake, among others.
Last year, Ms. Moody’s office released an Online Safety Toolkit to help educate parents and guardians about how the internet is being used by human traffickers. It also includes tips on how to create effective online safety plans for safe internet use.
Parents who think their children may be targeted by a potential predator are encouraged to call the NCMEC CyberTipline (1-800-843-5678) and file a report with their local FBI field office (1-800-CALL-FBI; Tips.FBI.gov).
The NCMEC reminds parents, “Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.”
It also recommends that victims “Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.”
They are also encouraged to report an alleged predator’s account and block it. But they’re instructed not to delete their profile or message information that can be used by law enforcement.
The NCMEC also helps victims remove explicit images off of the internet, it says.
Children and youth who don’t feel safe telling adults about falling prey to sextortion schemes are encouraged to contact NCMEC directly (firstname.lastname@example.org; 1-800-THE-LOST).