HSI, federal partners issue national public safety alert on sextortion schemes
WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in partnership with the FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), issued a national public safety alert today highlighting an incremental rise in incidents of children and teens being coerced into sending explicit images online and extorted for money – a crime known as financial sextortion.
“The sexual exploitation of children is a heinous crime. We will continue to exhaust every resource at our disposal to identify and support victims and to locate and apprehend perpetrators to ensure they face justice,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. “We know criminals hide in digital spaces to target their victims – in websites, chat rooms, peer-to-peer trading, and other internet-based platforms. But they cannot evade the dedicated workforce at HSI, where our special agents are leveraging the latest methods and technologies to go after these criminals. We will hold them to account.”
Over the past year, law enforcement received more than 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, including more than a dozen suicides. A large percentage of these sextortion schemes originate outside the United States, primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast. As children enter winter breaks this holiday season, HSI and whole-of-government partners encourage parents and caregivers to engage with kids about sextortion schemes to help prevent them from becoming victims.
Financial sextortion schemes occur in online environments where young people feel most comfortable – using common social media sites, gaming sites, or video chat applications that feel familiar and safe. On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males, between the ages of 14 and 17, but law enforcement has seen victims as young as 10.
“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys – and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does. Victims may feel like there is no way out—it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.”
“The protection of children is a society’s most sacred duty,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “It calls on each of us to do everything we can to keep kids from harm, including ensuring the threats they face are brought into the light and confronted. Armed with the information in this alert message, parents, caregivers, and children themselves should feel empowered to detect fake identities, take steps to reject any attempt to obtain private material, and if targeted, have a plan to seek help from a trusted adult.”
Through deception, predators convince young targets to produce explicit videos or photos. Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends some sort of financial payment (i.e., money, gift cards). Often, predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications. In many cases, however, predators release images even if payments are made. The shame, fear, and confusion victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.
“This is a growing crisis and we've seen sextortion completely devastate children and families,” said Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the NCMEC. “As the leading nonprofit focused on child protection, we've seen first-hand the rise in these cases worldwide. The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they're targeted online. We want everyone to know help is out there and they're not alone.”
What if you or your child is a victim?
HSI encourages the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity through its toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock. From outside the United States and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users may call TTY 802-872-6196.
The NCMEC has outlined tips for parents and young people if they or their child fall victim to sextortion, including:
- Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.
- Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.
- REPORT the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
- BLOCK the predator and DO NOT DELETE the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them.
- Let NCMEC help get explicit images of you off the internet.
- Visit MissingKids.org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org to report to us for help with the process.
- Ask for help. This can be a very complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
- If you don’t feel that you have adults in your corner, you can reach out to NCMEC for support at firstname.lastname@example.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.
HSI is principal investigative arm of DHS, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 7,100 special agents assigned to 220 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 53 countries. HSI’s international presence represents the Department of Homeland Security’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.