With the advent of the internet, social media, online gaming and chat rooms, people of all ages have access to the other side of the world — and your children — with just one click. This can open the door to a crime being dubbed “sextortion,” which some adults don’t know how to handle safely, so how can your children be expected to?
Sextortion, another way of saying sexual extortion, is relatively new in the cyber criminal arena, but it has, over the last few years, become sadly too easy to fall victim to. The FBI calls it a growing internet crime, cyber blackmail with a sexual exploitation twist, and it is most often committed by adults pretending to be children, who meet your children via online gaming and other online doorways, and coerce them into sending sexually explicit photos. And it all starts with just that one photo.
In a report by ABC News, Callahan Walsh, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said they are working with the Justice Department and have been working on sextortion cases since 2013, even though there are cases from earlier than that.
He says the predator’s goal is to make the acts sound like “everybody does it so it’s okay.” Sometimes this takes a long time, and predators are patient because they are grooming their victims. But, once that first photo is sent, everything changes.
Now the predator says if you don’t send me more or let me take more photos or videos of you, I’ll send this one to your family and friends, or post it on social media. So, the child allows it to happen again and again because they’re scared.
Last year, a 31-year-old man from Jacksonville, Florida, was convicted and sentenced to 105 years in prison on nine counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. He coerced over 350 girls, aged 13-18, whom he met through internet chat rooms, to first expose themselves on camera, where he would record them, and then he used that as blackmail. He would threaten to release the images if they did not participate in more nude photos or videos of themselves.
The FBI has identified and interviewed 109 of the girls in that case, but not the other 240 or so. The predator used over 100 aliases online to lure these young girls.
“Many of them are still in counseling. Five have attempted suicide. Two tried more than once.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, girls are targeted in 76 percent of sextortion cases while boys are targeted in 11 percent.
One of the “earliest and ultimately most prominent victims” was a Canadian teen named Amanda Todd who was 13-years-old in 2010 when she frequented teen chat rooms to meet other teens. USA Today said she ended up meeting a “teen” who was a 35-year-old man. That man was arrested for extorting over a dozen girls. But not before Amanda Todd moved to different schools, lost friends, was ridiculed online, beaten up, and posted a video telling her story — that has been viewed over 30 million times — about what she had gone through, her depression, cutting, and being alone.
And then she committed suicide.
There is a way to protect your kids — and that requires being a parent and not a friend to your child. Monitor what they do, monitor the websites they go to and the games they play, make sure they know that all chat rooms are off limits. Monitor who they talk to in gaming conversations and make sure they are aware that any requests to send a picture of any kind is off-limits.
Have them post a recognizable picture of their favorite pet or stuffed animal and show them how to find it again on Google Images. If you don’t know how to do this, LEARN. Make sure they understand once a digital photo is out there, it’s out there forever. There is no way to catch it and take it down. It’s not like a physical photo that can be torn in half, it is a perpetual thing that can take on a life of its own and be shared repeatedly and forever.
“When a parent allows a child to go online unsupervised, it’s basically dropping their child off on one of the most dangerous corners in the city,” explained Angel M. Melendez, a special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Homeland Security Investigations. HSI has gotten involved with these types of cyber crimes and sextortion cases because the increase in these types of cases has forced authorities “to go beyond law enforcement to also educate parents and teens about online safety.”
Blackmail, exploitation, sextortion, cyber terrorism, whatever you want to call it, it is an unfortunate fact that it all can begin from something innocent like an online game or a teen chat room. Sexual predators have one thing only on their mind, and they will utilize any avenue to achieve it. But we can be sure our kids are not caught in their trap. Be aware — tough love about online activities might literally save your child’s life. Be available — make sure they know they can always come to you if something like this happens. Be proactive — contact authorities if you want to know more or get help.
[Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]