Sextortion, Teenage Boys, and Suicide

Online Predators Target Adolescent Males

When we think of online predators – more accurately, when we think of the victims of online predators – we most often think of young women. We think of teenage girls. We imagine older men grooming vulnerable young women, luring them into compromising situations that can end in about a thousand bad ways, up to an including the worst possible outcomes – which we won’t even mention, because parents know what they fear most.

And when we think of online scams regarding money and extortion, we think of those emails from some spurious royalty in a far-off land with a tenuous story about bank transfers and the like. Or senior citizens falling for scams, fooled by people posing as representative of government agencies, insurance companies, credit card companies, or banks.

The people we don’t think of when online predators or money scams come up?

Teenage boys.

But we should be.

Why?

Because in the past six months – just halfway into 2022 – two teenage boys have taken their lives after falling victim to a type of online scheme known as sextortion.

Here’s what happened.

Two Teenage Boys: One in the U.S., One In Canada

According an article in CNN, early this year, Pauline Stuart, mother of 17-year-old boy Ryan Last, kissed her son goodnight around 10 pm.

It was a typical night, but it didn’t end like Pauline or her son ever could have imagined.

Soon after his mother said goodnight, Ryan received a message online from someone posing as a teenage girl. The conversation escalated to flirtation and beyond. Before long, the person convinced Ryan to send them explicit images of himself. When he complied, they immediately began blackmailing him. They threatened to send the pictures to everyone he knew, because they’d gotten access to his friends list and other contacts, some personal, and some school-related.

Ryan was afraid his reputation, his ability to go to college, and his relationship with family and his friends – in short his, his entire life – was over.

Ryan had no idea how to handle the situation.

He took his own life at 2 am.

He left behind a suicide note describing how embarrassed he was at what he thought he’d done, and how terrified he was if it all got out.

The same thing happened to another 17-year-old boy this year, too. This time it happened in Manitoba, Canada, and the tragedy followed an almost identical pattern.

Daniel Lints got a message from a person he thought was an attractive woman via Snapchat. The sender convinced him to send her explicit images of himself. Minutes later – just like Ryan Last – the sender began demanding money to prevent the images from being send to everyone on Daniel’s contact lists – friends, schoolmates, family, everyone.

Less than three hours later, Daniel took his own life.

What is Sextortion?

A press release published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in June 2022 describes the type of sextortion we discuss in this article as follows:

“Sextortion begins when an adult contacts a minor over any online platform used to meet and communicate, such as a game, app, or social media account. In a scheme that has recently become more prevalent, the predator (posing as a young girl) uses deception and manipulation to convince a young male, usually 14 to 17 years old, to engage in explicit activity over video, which is then secretly recorded by the predator. The predator then reveals that they have made the recordings and attempts to extort the victim for money to prevent them from being posted online.”

Of course, all forms of extortion – defined as “the practice of obtaining something, especially money, through force or threats” – are illegal. This form, though, is relatively new, and particularly onerous, because perpetrators prey on a vulnerable group of youth who are easily manipulated.

According to CNN, the FBI handled over 18,000 sextortion cases in 2021, involving extortion payments of over 13 million dollars. Because of the embarrassing nature of the circumstances surround sextortion, the FBI believes many instances go unreported. Quoted by the Boston Herald, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston office Joseph R. Bonavolonta said in a statement:

“Predators who ask for sexually explicit photos, videos, and then money to terrorize young victims with threats of posting their images online are incredibly disturbing, and on our radar.”

That’s good news: the FBI is live to the situation, and actively seeking to arrest and prosecute the criminals who simultaneously engage in trafficking minor pornography extorting money from underage victims.

Why Do Criminals Target Teenage Boys?

To understand why these predators target teenage boys, CNN reporters interviewed Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston:

“Teen brains are still developing. When something catastrophic happens, like a personal picture is released to people online, it’s hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the big scheme of things they’ll be able to get through this.”

It’s important for parents to remember that for a teenager, the problems they face in the moment often feel like the biggest problems in the world. A bad situation becomes the worst situation ever. Circumstances that may lead to temporary embarrassment or shame may feel overwhelming. Teens in those situations – like Ryan and Daniel – may feel like their life is literally over, and come to the conclusion that suicide is a better option than facing the consequences threatened by their extortionist.

So what can parents and teenage boys do to avoid, and thereby prevent, becoming victims of sextortion?

How to Avoid Sextortion: The FBI Recommendations for Teens

In an effort to help parents and teens, the FBI published an online resource called  Sextortion: An Online Threat to Kids and Teens that has two helpful FAQ-type sets of questions and answers. We’ll summarize those two now, because we consider the FBI the ultimate authority on this subject. We’ll start with the section of their publication called “What Kids and Teens Need to Know.”

Sextortion: Facts for Teens

How and why do people actually fall for this?

  • These criminals have taken the time to study how children and teens interact with one another, and they put that knowledge to use when they identify a target.
  • For instance, one perpetrator arrested and jailed for sextortion – a man in his 40s – spent time working in youth ministry to learn how to talk like an authentic teen. He created social media profiles, posed as a girl, and convinced boys to send him explicit videos.
  • In some cases, predators persuade their targets with money and gifts – from credits in a video game to new smartphones – to get them started. Then, when they have the videos or pictures they want, they turn the tables, and demand money to keep them private.
  • One perpetrator threatened a teen with physical harm, and threatened to bomb their school
  • Other cases start with the offer of currency or credits in a video game in exchange for a quick picture.

How do I know who to trust online?

  • This first bullet point is our answer, not the FBI answer. We say this:
    • If you don’t know them first in real life, the best rule of thumb is not to trust them.
    • If you don’t know them first in real life, don’t reveal any personal information at all. Don’t tell anyone your:
      • Real name
      • Where you live
      • Where you go to school
      • Your friends’ names
      • Any other screennames, gaming names, or profile avatars or names
      • Anything private or personal at all
    • If an adult you know in real life reaches out to you via instant messaging or the internet, separate from any school-related reason, family reason, or additional appropriate reason, that’s a red flag, and you should not engage at all.
    • If any adult you know in real life contacts you online and solicits – that means asks for – explicit pictures or video, tell you parents, then tell the police, then tell the FBI immediately. Do not wait. Take action immediately.

[We’ll now return to summarizing the FBI answers]

  • The FBI indicates that perpetrators of sextortion often have multiple profiles/accounts and target multiple victims at the same time.
  • Be careful with any online communication. You may think “I’m on my phone, in my own house, I’m totally safe.” However, if you give a sextortionist the information they want, they can have a direct impact on your life in a very real way. They can:
    • Constantly harass and threaten you
    • Make you feel scared, embarrassed, desperate, and alone
    • Feel like there’s no way out

If this happens to me, what do I do?

  • Call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online at https://tips.fbi.gov/
  • FBI agents have helped thousands of young people deal with sextortion and other similar crimes. They will work to stop harassment, arrest the criminal, and support you in any way you need.
  • If, for any reason, you don’t want to contact the FBI, tell an adult you trust what’s going on. trusted adult. Tell them someone online has targeted you and is extorting/trying to extort you.
  • All the adults in your life know it may feel impossible talk about something like this, but they also all want to help
  • Remember: you’re not the one in trouble.

How am I not in trouble if I sent the pics/video?

  • Because you’re not the one breaking the law.
  • These criminals rely on your fear, your embarrassment, your lack of knowledge, and your innocence.
  • You’re not in trouble, even if:
    • It started on an app you’re too young to be on
    • You were initially okay with making the some of the content
    • You accepted money, gifts, or anything in return for the content
  • Sextortion is a crime. It’s illegal for an adult to “ask for, pay for, or demand graphic images from a minor.”
  • Again: the criminal is the person in trouble, not you.

How do I protect my friends and myself?

Here are the six things the FBI recommends:

  1. Be careful and smart online. Use the privacy settings on your social media accounts or it will be easy for predators to target you.
  2. Be suspicious of anyone you don’t know online. The safest policy is to always ignore or block messages from anyone you don’t know.
  3. Remember that it’s easy to pretend to be someone else online. Pictures and videos are not proof. They can all be altered or stolen. Criminals can take time to build entire social media profiles and accounts that look real, but are fake.
  4. If someone meets you an a gaming platform or app and asks you to communicate on another app, that’s a red flag that they may be a predator.
  5. Know that anything you create or send online can end up being seen by the public. That goes for messages, pictures, or videos. Nothing you send or post online every really disappears.
  6. Ask for help if you get in over your head. When you receive any type of message you think is inappropriate – if it creeps you out in any way at all – block the person who sent it, report it to the site administrators, and tell an adult. If someone tried to victimize you online, the best thing you can do is tell someone who can do something about it, meaning the FBI, the local police, or an adult you trust.

That’s the information the FBI wants teens to know. Now we’ll summarize what the FBI wants parents and caregivers to know.

How to Avoid Sextortion: The FBI Recommendations for Parents

Another section of the same publication – Sextortion: An Online Threat to Kids and Teens – includes advice for parents and caregivers of teenagers. Here’s our summary of that section:

Sextortion: Facts for Parents and Caregivers

How could a child or teenager ever agree to doing something like this?

  • These criminals are skilled, ruthless, and have perfected their techniques. They can target teens on their phone or computer, through websites, messaging apps, or games. They may start in any number of ways, including simple flattery or flirtation.
  • Criminals may offer something valuable for just one quick picture. They may offer anything from cash to gifts to a modeling contract.
  • They may claim to already have an explicit photo, and demand more to keep that one private – even if they don’t have a photo, this is often how they get the first one. Once they get one image, the extortion starts.

My child would never do that.

  • Think again about that. The FBI has identified victims as young as 8 years old, and report victims of all genders, all ethnicities, and all socioeconomic groups. The FBI has worked with victims who are:
    • Honor-roll students
    • Children of teachers
    • Star student athletes
  • The only common trait among victims is internet access.
  • If your child has internet access, they may be targeted, and they may become a victim.

Why don’t the victims tell someone or ask for help?

  • Fear and embarrassment. Kids may be embarrassed about what they did and afraid they might get in trouble with their parents or the police. The criminal involved may tell them they’ve broken the law, too, which increases both their fear and their embarrassment.

How do I protect the young people I know?

  • Communication and honesty. First, young people need to know sextortion is a crime and that the person doing the extorting is the criminal, not the person they target. Share the information above with your teenager, and remind them:
It’s easy for anyone to pretend to be anyone or anything online
Be wary of any contact from strangers online,
No matter what anyone says, nothing online ever really disappears.
Any photo, video, or message can become public – even those created on apps that claim content will disappear after a set period of time
  • Monitor your child’s online activity. Know what they do, who they talk to, and how often. You can install parental controls on their devices. Some devices block specific sites, other restrict internet access overnight, and others prevent teens from messaging people outside a contact list you determine. Your actions with regards to their devices and online activity should be part of an ongoing conversation about not only internet safety, but overall safety in the 21st
  • Make sure to keep the lines of communication open and reassure your teenager that if they make a mistake or get in serious jam, your first response will always be to help them, support them, and protect them, rather than punish them. Predators rely on fear. Fear of peers, fear or parents, and fear of the authorities. Let your teen know that if something like this happens, they have nothing to fear from you, and they should tell you as soon as possible. In some cases, these crimes take place over weeks or even months, and the longer they go on, the more afraid, embarrassed, and paralyzed a teen becomes. Make sure your teen knows your goal is to protect them from criminals – even if they’ve sent pictures online they shouldn’t have.

Those are the key points the FBI wants parents and caregivers to know. For more information on online scams and/or crimes, please visit the FBI website here.

Communication First, Last, and Always

The best way to prevent your child from falling victim to an online sextortionist is to talk to them about internet safety from the very first time they get online. In 2021, most teens have already been online for several years. That means you’ve probably already had the online version of the Stranger Danger talk. With regards to this new variation of online extortion – the sextortion of teenage boys – it’s wise to sit your teenage son down and talk to them about it. Tell them what can happen, tell them how it can happen, and tell them if it happens, they’re not in the wrong – and they can do something about it. In these scenarios, teens are the victims, adults are the criminals, and if a victim takes action, the FBI can find these criminals, arrest them, and put them in jail.