Lynn and Paul were sitting in their Seattle home this year when their son, Michael, a 17-year-old high school football player, burst into the room and made a beeline for his mom’s purse on the dining room table. “I’m being blackmailed,” their son said. He had been chatting on social media with a person who purported to be a 16-year-old girl. The account was filled with photos and details about the girl’s life that made it appear real. The person behind the account asked to see a photo of him naked, and specifically requested he include his face. After he complied, suddenly, the person, who had seemed sweet and fun while chatting for weeks, demanded Michael send hundreds of dollars through Zelle, the Washington Post reports. If Michael refused, the person threatened, the nude photo would be sent to his family and friends. Michael had fallen prey to what online safety and law enforcement experts call financial sextortion, in which predators befriend victims online under false pretenses, entice them to send incriminating photos and then demand payment under threat that they’ll expose the photos to family and friends.
The number of sextortion cases targeting young people “has exploded in the past couple of years,” with teen boys being frequent targets, said Lauren Coffren of the Exploited Children Division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “They’re using shame, embarrassment and fear, and they’re tapping into that,” Coffren said. “They’re exploiting children’s worst nightmares.” NCMEC, which serves as a clearinghouse for records of abuse, received more than 10,000 tips of financial sextortion of minors, primarily boys, in 2022 from the public as well as from electronic service providers, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which are required by law to report cases. By the end of July 2023, NCMEC had already received more than 12,500 reports, which are routed to law enforcement, with more continuing to pour in. It’s possible that some of those reports were duplicates, Coffren said, but the increasing number of cases is troubling.