We’ve seen an abundance of cyber extortion cases over the last few years. Hackers steal and threaten to release classified or damaging information about the victim unless they receive payment. But now authorities warn about a new type of extortion that has led to a rise in teen suicides: sextortion.
What Is Sextortion?
Sextortion “is a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The perpetrator may also threaten to harm friends or family unless the victim complies with demands.
Sextortion is weaponized in a couple of ways. Predators may lure or convince the victim to perform or share photos/videos of a sexual act or nudity. Then, they may threaten to share the photo or video unless they receive payment. Hackers may also illegally obtain sensitive information or media from a victim’s electronic device and promise to share it unless they are satisfied. Essentially, sextortion is extortion involving technology and related to sex.
Unfortunately, these situations are more frequent than one might think, and targeted victims are predominately minors. This online scheme can occur on any social media app, website, or game where people communicate. Typically, the criminals depict themselves as being the same age as the victim, and they often initiate a brief online relationship. After explicit materials are shared, things head south. Once the victim has been exploited, criminals will threaten to share images/videos with friends and family unless the victim sends money or “additional sexual material,” says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles Koger.
Sadly, that is precisely what happened to Ryan Last. On a school night a couple of months ago, the 17-year-old, straight-A Boy Scout became a victim of sextortion, and it led to tragedy. Someone posing as a teenage girl interested in Ryan contacted him online. After the conversation turned personal, the subject sent Ryan a nude photograph and asked for one in return.
Ryan sent an explicit image back. Within seconds, the “teenage girl” turned into a cybercriminal, demanding he send $5,000, or else the photo would be shared with Ryan’s friends and family. Last convinced the perpetrator to lower the ransom to $150, which he paid from his college savings, but it still wasn’t enough. According to his mother, the scammer demanded more and more, and when she said goodnight to him 10 p.m., she had no hint that it would be their last encounter. By 2 a.m., Ryan had taken his own life, leaving a note detailing how embarrassed he was of himself and for his loved ones.
He saw no other path, no other way to continue his life if the image had been released. He was traumatized and panicked, but he’s not the only one. There were 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, totaling $13 million. The investigation into who was on the other side of the keyboard contributing to Last’s death is ongoing, but there’s no guarantee the scammer will be apprehended. The criminal could have committed the crime from anywhere in the world. The FBI says most cases have been rooted in the African continent or Southeast Asia.
Young males are the biggest target for sextortion, and there’s a reason. Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Mass General in Boston, says when “something catastrophic happens, like a personal picture is released to people online, it’s hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the big scheme of things they’ll be able to get through this.” Boys’ teen brains are still developing, and they may fear letting their parents down, so they don’t ask for help. They can’t think clearly, and it’s nearly impossible to ask law enforcement or a friend or a mom or dad for help. They see no other avenue for themselves.
Parents, however, can keep their child from becoming a victim like Ryan. Dr. Hadland says guardians must talk to their kids and figure out when they’re on social media, what applications they use, and with whom they engage. They don’t have to go total “helicopter parent,” but having consistent, open conversations with children and asking them to communicate when someone asks for photos or private information could save their lives and make them comfortable confiding in the future.