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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, February 6, 2023
HomeNewsLocal newsLaw Enforcement’s Latest Warning Over New Online Threat to Children

Law Enforcement’s Latest Warning Over New Online Threat to Children

Authorities say global sextortionists are aggressively targeting unsuspecting youth online. (Shutterstock Image)

Those who know youths who have had online misadventures involving sex may have heard about explicit photos circulated to friends and classmates. They might have heard of video clips capturing sex acts or raunchy conversations shared over social media.

But now the U.S. Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have issued a nationwide alert about a new scheme targeting children and youth. Federal authorities are especially concerned about a crime they call financial sextortion.

And unlike the possible consequences of embarrassment, lost scholarships, or job rejections, experts said in 2022 that some financial sextortion victims sought suicide as their way out.

According to a Dec. 21 statement issued by Justice, authorities cited 7,000 reports of extortionists targeting children online across the U.S. over the course of one year.

Investigators said they were able to link those reports to 3,000 victims of the scheme. A typical victim is profiled as a male between the ages of 10 and 17.

A sextortion scheme may show up on social media, the statement said. It may also appear in online chatroom features on video games. A predator posing as a youth may befriend and cajole the victim into undressing or acting out sexually while secretly capturing the action through the device being used.

Then the friendly talk quickly turns threatening, with promises of sharing the images with the victims’ friends and family unless they pay up.

At the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Director Patti Davis published a fact sheet explaining why this scheme can quickly zero in on a victim’s vulnerability.

“What makes this type of sextortion unique from what we have seen traditionally?” Davis said. “The speed of the extortion is quicker … the extortion appears to be financially motivated instead of sexually motivated … the volume of children involved is high and on a global scale … the extortion is aggressive ….”

And, she said, her agency has been inundated by parents and guardians desperate to free their children from entanglement.

The battle being waged by law enforcement in the name of children’s cyber safety has been going on in the U.S. since the late 1990s. One of the products of that effort is an online outreach campaign called iGuardian. Information posted to the website is the program’s goal to shed light on the risks awaiting unsuspecting youth. The project — sponsored by Homeland Security Investigations, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force — offers publications with cyber safety messages for different age groups.

Public schools in the Virgin Islands have hosted speakers from iGuardian. “We do a lot of outreach for the schools. We’ve even done it for the Parents-Teachers Association meetings,” said one bureau member.

When and how parents and guardians join the conversation is important, said HSI Resident Agent-In-Charge Eugene Thomas. Experts working with the iGuardian program say that innocence is one reason why children easily fall prey to the schemes of strangers met online.

Opening that dialogue also helps adults, the special agent said, because they, too, may not know if their child has been targeted.  “Talk to children about predators and (ask) whether they have been approached online,” Thomas said.

He expressed the agency’s commitment to keeping the territory’s children safe. “We need to arm our children and their caregivers with information they need to protect themselves against online risks,” he said.

Justice officials also urged those who think they or their children may have been singled out to call 1-800-CALL-FBI or report suspected sexploitation online at tips.fbi.gov.

Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to state that the iGuardian campaign is sponsored in part by Homeland Security Investigations, not Customs and Border Protection.

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