Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Utah say "sextortion" crimes against teen boys have skyrocketed across the state over the last year, in part due to the pandemic.
Two to three years ago, local agents investigated about one case a month. They now receive a few cases each week on average, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dustin Grant said Thursday. He did not have statistics for Utah but spoke anecdotally.
Sextortion occurs when an internet predator poses as someone else to solicit compromising photos or videos from a victim and then threatens to release the images unless the victim sends money or more images.
Nationally in 2021, the Internet Crime Complaint Center received over 18,000 sextortion complaints that led to losses of over $13.6 million, according to the FBI.
In Utah, investigators have marked an increase consistent with national statistics, Grant said. Boys between ages 14 and 17 are particularly susceptible, according to the FBI.
While sextortion isn't a new scam, the special agent attributes the rise in sextortion attempts targeting boys to the "enormous" increase in time teenagers spent on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fraudsters, pedophiles and other criminals found a "new avenue" to make money and target children, he said.
When boys are the victims of sextortion cases, they're less likely to disclose what's happening to them "because I think, for whatever reason, there's an enormous amount of guilt or shame or embarrassment that's associated with this," Grant said.
Children in Utah have died by suicide due to the effects of sextortion cases, he noted.
When asked why many teens will accept friend requests from people they don't know, Grant said cases often occur when a boy receives a friend request or invitation from an attractive girl who appears of a similar age. The girl then sends photos that the boy believes are real, and the boy often believes he needs to reciprocate. The boy will believe they know who the person on the other end of the phone is.
"I just think boys are more susceptible in that way because I think there's an obligation on their part to please who they're talking to or to reciprocate interest," Grant said.
He said parents who keep an eye on their children's social media accounts and friends put themselves at a greater advantage in preventing sextortion than those who don't — although sextortion can still happen to anyone's child.
The FBI doesn't have the capacity to handle all of the cases it receives in Utah, Grant said, meaning the agency needs to rely on local law enforcement partners for assistance.
"I almost prefer that on every case, whether the FBI works it or not, that we make the referral to local law enforcement, because police departments may already be aware of information about the victims or the families that we may not have access to," Grant said.
The FBI also makes referrals to the Division of Child and Family Services.
Agents want to urge parents to have conversations with their children to try to prevent them from falling victim to such a scam. But if a child does fall victim, there's help, Grant said, and investigators can potentially identify the suspects and stop them from hurting other kids.
The FBI gives these tips for parents to protect their children online:
- Be careful about sharing information online. If one's social media account is visible to everyone, "a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you or your children," the FBI says.
- Block or ignore social media messages from strangers.
- Know that anyone can pretend to be someone else online. Videos or photos do not prove that someone is who they claim.
- Be wary of those you meet on a game or app if they try to talk on a different platform.
- Encourage children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.
Grant said increased awareness of such scams has led to some "success stories" of kids being targeted but not sending images because of information they received from their parents, schools or law enforcement. The goal is to make children a "hard target" for predators, he said.
"But if it does happen, we want to make sure it isn't the end of the world for kids, and they can file a complaint or a report anonymously," or they can have someone report it on their behalf, Grant said.
Those who believe they or someone they know has been a victim of sextortion should contact their local FBI field office, which can be found at fbi.gov, or the Internet Crime Complaint Center at ic3.gov. Do not delete potential evidence before law enforcement officers can review it.
Often, those who commit sextortion crimes live overseas and can be difficult to prosecute. But law enforcement agencies have had some success finding and prosecuting suspects who live in the U.S., including Utah.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the 24-hour national suicide prevention 24-hour lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A list of area-specific suicide and crisis prevention hotlines in Utah can be found here.
Utah students can talk to or text a counselor through the SafeUT app. The app can also be used to report threats at school.