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“Financial sextortion,” a type of cybercrime that targets teens and tweens, is on the rise.
Reports of financially motivated sextortion involving minors increased at least 20% from October 2022 to March 2023 relative to the same six-month period the prior year, the FBI said in January.
“Sextortion is a rapidly escalating threat,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee in December. “There have been way too many teenagers victimized and they don’t know where to turn.”
Criminals coerce kids — typically males ages 14 to 17 — into creating and sending sexually explicit material such as photos and videos, often by pretending to be “alluring young girls,” the FBI said.
Predators then blackmail victims, threatening to release that content to friends, family and social media followers unless they receive payment, perhaps in the form of money or gift cards. Even if paid, scammers often demand more and escalate threats, the FBI said.
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The damage isn’t just financial: Some victims, feeling embarrassed, afraid and isolated, have turned to self-harm and suicide, the agency said.
Financial sextortion is the fastest-growing crime targeting children in North America and Australia, according to the Network Contagion Research Institute. Incidents in those regions are up 1,000% in the past 18 months, it said.
Data is almost certainly understated since it relies on reported incidents, experts said.
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In the past, predators had largely used sextortion for their “sexual gratification and control” but are now mostly motivated by greed, the FBI said.
Nearly all activity is linked to a West African cybercriminal gang, the Yahoo Boys, who primarily target English-speaking minors and young adults on social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Wizz, according to the NCRI.
“This disturbing growth in child sexual exploitation is driven by one thing: changes in technology,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday at a hearing with leaders of social media companies including Meta, Snap, TikTok, Discord and X.
To that point, 65% of Generation Z across six countries, including the U.S., said they or their friends had been targeted in online sextortion schemes, according to recent research by Snap.
In such cases, predators obtained sensitive material via “catfishing” — persuading victims to send photos by pretending to be someone they’re not — or “hacking” — gaining unauthorized access to electronic devices or social media accounts to steal images — Snap said.
Kids from affluent households — those with annual income of $150,000…