by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
The FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) issued a joint national public safety alert on financial sextortion schemes.
That same day, Jonathan Kassi, 25, was arraigned for being part of an extortion scam that was linked to the death by suicide of San Jose teen, 17-year-old Ryan Last, who had reportedly exchanged sexually revealing photos with a person he believed to be a girl. Kassi allegedly threatened to make those photos public unless Ryan sent money. As the Mercury News reported, “The monetary demands dropped in scale — eventually to $150 — after the victim communicated that he could not afford them. But after Last paid that smaller amount, the demands reportedly did not cease,” The report added that “it does not appear that Kassi was the person communicating directly with Last but that he facilitated the broader sextortion.”
In other words, Kassi was not working alone, which is consistent with other reports about sextortion often being used by organized crime syndicates to extract money from teens and other victims.
In an interview for ConnectSafely’s Parents Guide to Teen Sextortion, former Internet Crimes Against Children commander Joe Laramie said, “What we’re seeing typically is that these are coming from organized crime syndicates that are in other countries, and they are just sending out random emails.” Kassi’s accomplices, according to investigators, were using a Gmail account created on the Ivory Coast.
Teenage boys at higher risk
Teenage boys are especially at risk of sextortion. Messages sent to them via email or on social media include a picture of an attractive girl who claims to be interested in establishing an online or possibly also an in-person relationship. This can lead to an exchange of messages, which typically become increasingly intimate and sexual over time. At some point — and it could be very soon in the conversation — the “girl,” who may not actually be a girl, suggests exchanging intimate images. The ones “she” sends are likely of someone else, but the boy may send an image of himself which can then be used to extort him for even more explicit images and eventually money. In the case of San Jose’s Ryan Last, the initial demand was reportedly $5,000, but according to a Mercury News report, “The monetary demands dropped in scale — eventually to $150 — after the victim communicated that he could not afford them. But after Last paid that smaller amount, the demands reportedly did not cease.”
The joint alert issued by the FBI, Homeland Security and NCMEC said that “law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides. These are just the reported cases. I’m sure there are thousands more that are not reported. The Cyberbullying Research Center said that 5% of teens have been the target of sextortion, and only one-third told their parents. The research center also reported that “males were significantly more likely to have experienced sextortion” and “adolescents who identified as non-heterosexual were more than twice as likely to be the victim of sextortion.
Talk with your children and teens
I strongly agree with Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who said “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.”
It’s very important to warn young internet users about this and other scams and all youth — especially boys — need to know that the person on the other end of a message may not be who they appear to be. Come to think of it, that advice applies to adults as well. I don’t know what they’re up to, but I frequently get messages with attached photos that appear to come from attractive young women that I don’t know. I immediately delete them and block the person because it’s almost certainly a scam of some sort. But not everyone — especially teens — is able to exercise the necessary judgment to know when something is likely a scam. Whether it’s wishful thinking or a lack of impulse control, some — but far from all — young people respond to these messages and engage in conversations that can lead them into becoming a victim.
In many ways, sextortion scams are similar to grooming that sexual abusers use to lure teens into physical relationships. It often starts with what appears to be innocent and friendly conversations with a perpetrator who takes the necessary time to gradually lure the teen into a sexually charged conversation. In some cases, it can result in physical abuse, but these days, there are plenty of perpetrators who are simply interested in the teen’s money.
Some teens can and do pay
When I first heard of this financial scam, I wondered how criminals could get money out of teens. “In most cases they’re not able to pay the money because they don’t have the money,” said former internet crimes officer Joe Laramie, “but as they and we know there are some kids who do have some college savings and their money and their college account.” Sometimes, he added, “they’re asked to go out and buy gift cards as a way to transfer money to someone in a foreign country.” Besides, we’re not necessarily talking about a lot of money by adult U.S. standards. Even small amounts of money from individual young victims can add up to a significant haul for criminals operating from developing countries.
Law enforcement authorities say not to make any payments. Even if you do pay, they may ask for more money and continue to threaten you, and if you don’t pay, there is the possibility that they’ll move on. If their goal is to extract money, they might not bother committing the additional crime of revealing your photos once they know you’re not going to send them money.
Victims can recover
But even if the criminals do release the images or video, teens need to know that it’s not the end of the world. With help and support from parents, other loved ones and sometimes professional help, a teen can emotionally recover from the scars of having their image out there. It’s also important for them to know that law enforcement authorities and most other adults (including college admissions officers and employers) know that it’s not their fault.
You’ll find a lot more advice in ConnectSafely’s Parent’s Guide to Teen Sextortion Scams at connectsafely.org/sextortion.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org and served on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s board of directors from 1994 to 2020..