The FBI's San Francisco office is warning parents of teen boys about the prevalence of cyber-extortion incidents in the Bay Area and beyond.
The agency said in a news release Wednesday there has been an increasing number of so-called "sextortion" reports. The incidents begin with adults posing online as teen girls and coercing teen boys into sharing racy images of themselves through various social media platforms. If and when the victim shares such an image, the criminal begins extorting money from them.
One such incident in February ended with a South San Jose 17-year-old taking his own life. Ryan Last was just weeks away from his 18th birthday and just a few months from graduating at Ann Sobrato High School.
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A predator may contact minors over any number of online platforms used to meet and communicate, such as a game, app or social media account, the FBI says. The predator poses as a young girl and seeks out young males, usually 14 to 17 years old, to engage in explicit activity using images or video.
Many of the criminals are based overseas and will demand money in increasing amounts if any is sent during the initial request, the FBI says.
If a child believes they've been victimized in a sextortion scheme, the FBI urges them to come forward to someone — a parent, teacher, caregiver or law enforcement. Victims may feel a sense of embarrassment from such a traumatic experience, but coming forward will help law enforcement identify and catch the suspects and may prevent future incidents, including those with tragic outcomes, the FBI says.
FBI San Francisco says over the past year it has received dozens of sextortion reports involving boys. Most of them were for money, but some victims also reportedly were extorted for additional images.
"These crimes have had devastating effects on children and their families," Acting Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan said in a statement. "We need to disrupt these criminals by making potential victims and their parents aware of the sextortion threat.
"Parents and guardians should talk to their children about the dangers of online communication and the importance of speaking up if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable or threatened," Ragan added.
The FBI provided the following tips to protect children and their families online:
- Be selective about what you share online, especially your personal information and passwords. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you or your children.
- 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.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on a game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
- Encourage your children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.
In the event someone believes they are the victim of sextortion, the FBI advises the following:
- Contact FBI San Francisco at 415-553-7400 or online via tips.fbi.gov, or contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (1-800-THE-LOST or Cybertipline.org).
- Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it.
- Tell law enforcement everything about the encounters you had online; it may be embarrassing, but it is necessary to find the offender.
More information about sextortion and cyber crime can be found on the FBI website.
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.