Sextortion, where victims are blackmailed using explicit imagery, is spiking across America, much of it targeting teenage boys on Instagram and Snapchat.
The FBI is trying to unmask a prolific Instagram extortionist who posed as a Californian woman and tricked at least 30 teenage boys and young men into sending nude images, only to be told the photos would be shared with their families and friends unless they paid a given sum. In one case, an 18-year-old from Ventura County, California, gave over $1,500 in Apple gift cards to the blackmailer and subsequently took his own life, according to a previously unreported court filing obtained by Forbes.
The scammer has been carrying out the sextortion campaign since May last year and their identity is not yet known. They’ve been particularly aggressive in pursuing payment from victims, in one case threatening violence against a 19-year-old and his family. The scammer also hacked into at least two victims’ Instagram accounts, telling them to hand over passwords to stop their photos being shared, according to the FBI. The victims told police they tried to get their accounts back but were unsuccessful. Both were unavailable when checked by Forbes.
Law enforcement has so far been unable to identify the perpetrator of the scam. But search warrants did return a number of Google Voice messages that suggest there may be more than two dozen additional victims. Both the Justice Department and the Ventura County police declined to comment on the case. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
With more people working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and spending more time online as a result, the FBI has documented what it describes as a “huge increase” in reports of sextortion. The agency’s Atlanta, Georgia office, for example, has received 50 such reports so far in 2022 — more than double the full-year total for 2021. Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which documented 12,070 reports of sextortion and other forms of online enticement in 2018, saw 44,155 in 2021. Elsewhere, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line for child exploitation, told Forbes it had opened case files for 500 claimed instances of sextortion in the last month alone.
“It’s a pandemic,” says John Pizzuro, a former 25-year-veteran investigator on child abuse crimes with the New Jersey State Police. “We can’t even keep up with the amount of cases… New Jersey’s increase has been 400% over the last four years, and that goes across the U.S. and across the world.”
Also notable in the rise of sextortion is the target demographic: teenage boys. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection said that in the cases it investigated in July, where the gender of a victim was known, 92% involved boys or young men. The FBI says that in the majority of cases it has been investigating, the victims are males aged between 14 and 17.
That represents a shift in targeting. Six years ago, NCMEC data showed that 78% of sextortion reports between 2013 and 2016 involved female children, compared to 15% involving males.
While the financial cost of sextortion isn’t astronomical compared to other cybercrimes — standing at $13.6 million from 18,000 cases reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2021, compared to $1 billion for romance scams — this form of online extortion is one that has repeatedly proven deadly.
The death in Ventura County was the second linked to sextortion in California alone in a three-month period. In February, a 17-year-old from San Jose, California, took his own life after a cybercriminal blackmailed him using an intimate photo the scammer tricked him into sharing. The FBI is still trying to find the perpetrator in that investigation, according to CNN. And in February, in Manitoba, Canada, a 17-year-old also took his own life just three hours after being blackmailed over nude photos.
Attention is now turning to tech giants and what they’re doing to protect its young users. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection says the majority of sextortion cases it reviewed this July were perpetrated over Instagram and Snapchat, 42% and 38% respectively. As an example of what the Canadian organization called an Instagram failing, it identified at least 19 unique accounts used to sextort victims all using the same profile picture, “something we would expect their systems to intercept,” says Lianna McDonald, the nonprofit’s executive director. (Meta did not respond to a request for more information on that finding).
Instagram’s parent company Meta and Snapchat all declined comment on the rise in sextortion scams on their platforms. Meta pointed to its support of TopNCII.org, which helps people keep tabs on where their photos are shared, while Snapchat said it had various measures to stop teens chatting with people they didn’t know.
McDonald believes regulations are required to force tech companies to do more. “Many network and platform design changes could be made to tackle these issues, but our experience has been that serious change won’t happen without regulatory intervention,” she says. “Why? Because changing some of the fundamental design issues that create favorable conditions for predation on many social media platforms would likely undermine aspects of their current business models.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).