What you need to know about Sextortion – the fastest growing crime against teens today

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If you talk to any teenager today, they’ll tell you they’ve heard about “sexting.” But when asked about sextortion, most teenagers have no idea.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, sextortion is one of the biggest issues affecting teenagers.

“The criminals are actually saying that they have either photographs or videos of you in a compromising situation – that if you don’t pay the ransom, they’re going to release that to your contacts or post it on social media,” says FBI Unit Chief Donna Gregory explaining how sextortion scams work.

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In August, an FBI report showed an increase in the number of reported sextortion attempts across the country. Between July 1 and the beginning of August, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, or IC3, received an additional 13,000 complaints about the sextortion scam over the previous months.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien says sextortion often begins as sexting -- a crime many teenagers willingly participate in, not knowing the consequences. In the past four years, O’Brien’s office has charged 81 juveniles with a sexting-related crime, some as young as 11 years old.

“I don’t think kids really think of the consequences of that and also don't look down the road that the person they love now at the age of 16, that if they break up and there's hard feelings, what could result if that were spread around to friends relatives and other students at school, which unfortunately has happened,” O’Brien explains.

Students at Encore Academy in Reynoldsburg say by the time kids reach high school, sexting is almost the norm.

“It's kind of sad to say that it's not very taboo at our age, even from like young ages...7th grade, 8th grade,” Encore senior Jaimar Carson told 10TV. “It’s so, kind of normal, the first incident didn’t strike me as upsetting,” he adds.

The prosecutor’s office now has a team dedicated to educating students in middle and high school on the dangers of sexting. Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Zach Imwalle visits upwards of 30 to 40 schools during the year, holding one-hour education seminars for students.

“If you have naked pictures of your boyfriend girlfriend, every night while you’re sleeping those get saved online to mom’s cloud account, something she can access,” Imwalle told an auditorium full of students in Reynoldsburg in early October.

“Something people who create these cloud accounts can access,” Imwalle explained as students started taking out their cell phones and deleting photos.

Other students say they’re glad they got a lesson on "Sexting 101."

“The whole iCloud thing, that surprised me completely,” says Deylyn Medina, a 17-year-old senior at Encore. “Hopefully, we'll be more hesitant to think THREE times, not twice, before you send or ask anything,” she added. “Even if it's a joke because it's not a joke.”

Other students, like senior Boyd Davis, says he often tries to steer his classmates in the right direction.

“I've had friends who talk to me about that and I don't want to hear about it so I tell them, ‘You're going to get in trouble for that,’ And I'll be like if you don't delete that I'm going to have to say something because that's just not right,” Davis says.

O’Brien says ever since his office started offering the sexting workshop in 2015, he’s received positive feedback from students, teachers and parents.

“Our thought process is, let’s do an education piece that explains a little bit of the consequences [of sexting] that it can impair your ability to get scholarships, get into the military, you could – if found guilty – be required to register as a sex offender,” says O’Brien, as he listed the various consequences for teens who are caught sexting.

But when it comes to sextortion, O’Brien says kids just need to realize that anything sent of sexual nature over a phone or social media is opening the doors to a dark and dangerous path.

“Don't deal with people you don't know who they are that you met online,” says O’Brien. “They might say they go to a nearby high school and saw you at a football game and gee, let’s have an online relationship where they don’t see the person face to face. And that can lead to the sextortion where someone would send an improper sexting photograph, that could be used to pressure them to actually engage in sex or that photo would be disclosed to others including their parents.”

Don’t Become a Victim of Sextortion

Special Agent Larry Meyer and other investigators experienced in online child sexual exploitation cases offer these simple tips for young people who might think that sextortion could never happen to them:

  • Whatever you are told online may not be true, which means the person you think you are talking to may not be the person you really are talking to.
  • Don’t send pictures to strangers. Don’t post any pictures of yourself online that you wouldn’t show to your grandmother. “If you only remember that,” Meyer said, “you are probably going to be safe.”
  • If you are being targeted by an online predator, tell someone. If you feel you can’t talk to a parent, tell a trusted teacher or counselor. You can also call the FBI, the local police, or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline.
  • You might be afraid or embarrassed to talk with your parents, but most likely they will understand. “One of the common denominators in the Chansler case,” Meyer noted, “was that parents wished their daughters had told them sooner. They were very understanding and sympathetic.

Click here for an FBI brochure on how to stop sexting of kids in the United States.