The FBI is advising parents and caregivers to remain vigilant after issuing a public safety alert about an increase in incidents of children being coerced into sending explicit images of themselves online and then being extorted for money.
The federal agency has received more than 7,000 reports over the past year related to the crime known as “financial sextortion,” resulting in at least 3,000 victims, according to the alert published Dec. 19 in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The agency has also linked more than a dozen suicides to those schemes.
The sextortion schemes involve victims being coerced into sending explicit images of themselves and then being forced to pay with money or gift cards to release the images, the FBI said. The schemes are usually initiated on social media platforms, gaming websites, and video chat apps, where online predators often use fake female accounts and target boys between 14 to 17 years old, but the FBI said it has interviewed victims as young as 10.
Teaching kids effective media literacy skills could help prevent them from becoming victims to these schemes, experts emphasize. Media literacy is the ability to think critically about the information people receive from different types of media and to understand media’s influence on our lives.
Olga Polites, the leader of the New Jersey chapter of the nonprofit advocacy group Media Literacy Now, said because kids live so much of their lives online, it’s critical that they learn these skills as early as possible so they can grow up to be digitally responsible and safe.
“What [children] need are tools,” Polites said. “They need the educational background of: What am I looking at here? How is this person contacting me? What are the manipulations that I may be subjected to?”
“They don’t even know to ask these questions because they don’t have that perspective,” Polites added.
New Jersey could be the firststateto mandate that school districts teach media literacy skills for students at every grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade, if the bipartisan bill passed by the state legislature is signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The FBI shared six best practices to help prevent children from falling victim to sextortion schemes:
- Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are public, 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.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and this person asks you to start talking on a different platform.
- Remember that any content you create online can be made public, and nothing actually “disappears” online.
- 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 a trusted adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.
The FBI is also advising parents and caregivers to talk to their children about these schemes so that they’re aware of what it is and how to protect themselves.
“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,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. “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.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of this crime, report it to your local FBI field office. Call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.