Steve Lewis: Today’s show discusses online child sexual exploitation. We hope it is an episode that parents and caregivers will listen to with their children and teens. But adults may want to listen first and determine what they want to share.
Don’t talk to strangers.
Don’t walk alone at night.
Don’t get in a car with someone you don’t know.
These are guidelines we give our children about staying safe. They need an update.
It’s not that these rules no longer apply, but nowadays, one of the biggest risks to young people can come right through the closed door of your home—right into your child’s bedroom—through a phone or computer.
We’re talking about online predators and an increasingly common crime the FBI calls sextortion.
On this episode of Inside the FBI, we’ll hear from an FBI agent who has worked dozens of these cases and an FBI victim specialist who has worked with many young people affected by this crime. And we’ll also hear from a mother whose 13-year-old daughter was victimized by an online predator.
If you’re a parent or a caregiver of a young person, or you’re a kid or teenager yourself, we ask that you listen to this show to understand the risks of sextortion and learn what to do if you or someone you know is a victim.
I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
Monica Grover: It was a day off from school.
Presley—we’ve changed her name to protect her identity—was home by herself for a few hours. She had plans to meet up with a friend later that day after her mom got home from work. The door to her house was locked. The alarm system was on. And Presley did what most 13-year-olds do when they have some free time: She got on her phone.
Later that day, her mom came out of a meeting to see several missed calls from her daughter. She knew immediately that something was wrong. Here’s Presley’s mom.
Presley’s Mom: When I received her voicemail, she was, her voice was terrified and in a panic, and she just said, “Mom, I need your help.” And I went to call her back and found out a little bit about what had been going on. Just bits and pieces. Enough to know that we needed to run home and help.
Grover: Presley’s stepfather made it to her first.
Mom: She just ran outside, screaming and in a robe, and just handed him her phone, and he saw what was going on and immediately called the police.
She was just so thankful that someone was here to save her. To keep it from happening anymore.
Grover: So what happened over Presley’s cell phone that left her so terrified?
She’d been targeted, groomed, and exploited by an online predator.
In messages to Presley, the man threatened to send pictures and spread rumors about her to her friends. He said her he would hunt down and kill her mom and come to her house to hurt her, too. Using these threats, he demanded that she stay on a video connection with him and perform a series of increasingly graphic acts on camera.
It’s a crime the FBI calls sextortion. And far from being an isolated incident, it’s disturbingly common. The FBI is seeing an increase in cases and warns that the risk to young people who spend time online is very real.
Sextortion starts with a connection, which is what so many online games, chat apps, photo-sharing sites, and social media platforms are designed for.
Parents aren’t even aware sometimes that these online games and websites let strangers interact directly with their kids.
Here’s Kevin Kaufman, an FBI special agent in Tampa, Florida, who investigated Presley’s case.
Kevin Kaufman: What’s happening is, you’re finding that parents are giving their kids phones at young ages. We are finding victims as young as 7 years old. They’re either giving them tablets or they’re giving them iPads or they’re giving them phones, and they’re giving them access to applications on the internet.
First thing, and one of the biggest, biggest rules that I preach to any parent, is if any device—whether it be a gaming app or whether it be gaming online through Xbox or Playstation—anything that has the chat ability or the function to chat with anybody online, you are now setting up your kid, setting them up for potential victimization of a predator. You have to be aware of the vulnerabilities of the application or the game that you are using and the capability of the chat communication with strangers.
Grover: These games and apps end up giving predators a path to reach your kids. In cases of online abuse or exploitation, the abuser can be anyone, anywhere.
And to your child, they’re going to reach out like they’re a friend or someone their age—not an adult.
They might pretend to be a peer who shares your child’s interests or even has a romantic interest in them. Predators gather information that’s often easy to grab from screen names or social media profiles or from early interactions with a child. They want to learn things like where and with whom a child lives, what they like, and where they go to school.
This information gives a predator the material they need to get close to a child and later threaten them when the sextortion begins.
In Presley’s case, she believed she was chatting on an app with another 13-year-old girl named K.C. K.C. texted like Presley’s other friends, and the pictures that she sent made it look like she was a teen.
So Presley let her guard down, something her mom says she never would have done if she’d known that K.C. was actually a 30-year-old man in another state.
The day the sextortion began, Presley sent K.C. a picture of herself in the long t-shirt she was wearing that day. K.C. threatened to send that picture to Presley’s contact list. And from there, the threats became more violent and the demands more extreme.
Michelle Thorne: Online predators can be very controlling and manipulative.
Grover: That was Michelle Thorne, an FBI victim specialist. She provides guidance, support, and resources to victims of crimes, including sextortion. As she explains, online predators …
Thorne: … can mislead victims to believe that they can be trusted. And oftentimes the conversations will quickly escalate from common chats to demanding more sexually graphic images.
Grover: On the internet, there’s no guarantee that someone is who they say they are. Once a predator has gotten even just one compromising photo of a child, they can use it as a threat to get them to produce more. Often, they begin to threaten violence, too.
It’s tempting as a parent to say, “That could never happen to my child.”
But those who have experience with this crime caution against that way of thinking. Agent Kaufman says that both boys and girls are targeted. He’s seen victims younger than 10 and some who are legal adults. He’s seen victims who were shy bookworms and victims who were standout athletes. In one of his cases, the victim was a stellar student who was packing up to begin her first year at an Ivy League university.
His message to parents: Your kids can be outmatched by a predator online, especially if they’re unprepared.
Kaufman: What parents don’t realize is these predators are—what I like to say is, these predators are like major league baseball players. They’re like professional football players. They’re professionals, and they’re going up against people that are, like, peewee or have never played a sport before, and they’re going into a sport and starting out. And what they’re doing is they are 12, 13, 10, 11, whatever age you want to put out there. You know, 11-year-old minds are going up against 40-year-old, 30-year-old minds of adult males that do this every single day, 24 hours a day. And the first thing that you’ve got to recognize is that your child is a victim, and that no matter how bad or how many images or videos they’ve sent out, that they’ve been victimized and that they need to be treated as victims.
Grover: As the crime goes on, young people are asked to produce more and more images.
As a child or teen sends more photos, their feelings of guilt and fear increase. They get caught in a terrifying cycle, afraid that if they don’t meet the predator’s demands, they’ll be exposed or they–or their family—might be hurt.
And although the crime may be carried out completely online, it’s still a violent crime. And its victims experience devastating impacts.
Here’s Victim Specialist Michelle Thorne on what she’s seen.
Thorne: I’ve worked with a number of teens and young adults whose biggest fear is that someone will recognize them when they are going about their day-to-day life. Or that the predator will carry out their threats to harm either them or a loved one. We have seen the impact that it can have on them at school, with a sudden drop in their grades, or isolating themselves from friends and family and even self-harming behaviors.
Grover: Here’s Presley’s mom describing the transformation her daughter went through.
Mom: My daughter went from a very happy-go-lucky, new teenager that never met a stranger, was a social butterfly, to someone who deals with anxiety and depression. She has had panic attacks. The first part of it, before we knew who it was, she was absolutely terrified to leave the house, because she didn’t know who it was that had done this to her because it was behind a screen. And then after we did find out, the anxiety and fearfulness went away from him but started with the “what ifs” and the self-doubt and just an extreme depression. It’s not something that goes away. It’s something that stays with you.
Grover: Presley’s courage in reporting helped investigators find the man who terrorized her. Justin Richard Testani pleaded guilty to child sexual exploitation in February 2020. Investigators discovered he victimized many other young girls.
During the trial, Presley bravely delivered a victim impact statement describing how the experience had changed her and affected her life. Testani was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in August 2020.
Here’s Agent Kaufman again to explain that long sentence.
Kaufman: The impact of these predators on the children and the effects, the after-effects of the victimization is something that your child will feel for the rest of their life. And that’s the thing that most parents don’t really understand. They think that, you know, it’s over the internet, they’re not in person, there’s no harm to it—and that is definitely not the fact. The circumstances of someone victimizing your kid over the internet will have a huge, huge impact on your child—and not only just on your child’s lifestyle. It will change your child, and it will steal the innocence of your child.
Grover: Now that you know that sextortion happens and how it affects victims, you might be wondering: What can be done to stop it?
Learn, understand, and monitor what your kids are doing online. Become more tech savvy—download the apps and games your children are using and learn what they can do. Consider waiting longer to give your kid access to a connected device, and weigh the risks and benefits of letting them have social media accounts.
Agents and experts say it’s best to keep devices out of bedrooms and bathrooms and to shut off your Wi-Fi at night whenever possible. They also encourage everyone—children and parents alike—to share just a little less on social media.
Going back to those warnings we give our kids, one thing is clear: “Stranger danger” looks very different today than it did 20 years ago. So the conversations we are having with our kids need to change, too. And those conversations have never been more important.
Kaufman: The one thing that I would say to parents and to those with children is: You need to have an honest conversation with your child. You need to explain that there are people on the internet that are going to look to act as your friend. And those people should be considered strangers.
Just like you would tell your kid in person—stranger danger—it’s the same thing that you would say online. That if you do not know who you are talking to and you are not face-to-face with that individual—even if it is one of your friends—you’ve got to be careful on what you’re doing and who you’re chatting with. Because you have several instances and cases I’ve worked where subjects will actually take over accounts of kids that they’ve victimized, and then they will go after their friends.
So even though you are a friend with a person and that might be your only friend on a chat application, you might not be talking to your friend at any particular time. We’ve had instances where subjects have gone and asked the victim’s friends for images of themselves in their underwear or images with their shirt off. These friends trust these people and they’re like, “Well, why?” And they’re like, “Oh just send it to me because I want to see if I look like you or what you look like.” And they send it, and then the next thing you know, they are being victimized of sextortion by the same guy that victimized their friend.
Grover: That very thing happened in Presley’s case.
Testani briefly let Presley disconnect from him to open a new account. His plan was to keep his link to her through that new account, but he’d also have access to her old account in order to pretend to be her and talk to her friends. That window allowed Presley to call her mom, which stopped her ordeal and kept her friends from being victimized, too.
Mom: Teenagers are quick to accept friend requests.
Grover: That’s Presley’s mom again.
Mom: They are quick to let people in when they think they know who it is. It’s very important to know who it is. And if that conversation ever gets uncomfortable, just like we teach them when they are little about stranger danger and how to handle somebody if they start having an inappropriate conversation or touch you in a wrong way. If someone—even if you think you know who they are—if they are talking to you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, that’s something you’ve got to be aware of. And I think parents need to have an open line of communication with their children so that they feel comfortable to come to them and tell them, “Hey, something’s wrong. Something’s not right.”
Grover: Through her mom, Presley also shared with us some of her own advice and wisdom.
Presley wanted to make sure that parents, as they set up whatever online rules or limits they think are appropriate, don’t scare their child away from asking for help when they need it.
Her call to her mom that day not only led to the arrest of the man who victimized her but it gave her access to resources to help her begin to heal. If she’d been fearful of her parents’ reaction, she may never have told anyone.
She also said that every young person should know that they have control online—even if a predator is telling them that they don’t. Kids have control over what they send and say yes to. Control over who they connect to and who they cut off. And if something starts to happen that feels wrong or scary, they have the power to ask for help. When an adult is asking a child for inappropriate images, the child is never at fault.
That’s something Victim Specialist Michelle Thorne also stressed.
Thorne: If you’re in a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable, you have the right to say no. For reporting, you can call 1-800-CALL-FBI or you can visit our website, www.fbi.gov for more information.
Grover: And one last piece of advice from Presley: Don’t be afraid to speak up. You are not alone.
For more on Presley’s story and resources to help keep your child safe online, visit fbi.gov/sextortion.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. I’m Monica Grover from the Office of Public Affairs. Thanks again for tuning in.
Sextortion is a crime that involves adults coercing kids and teens into sending explicit images online. The FBI has several resources to help caregivers and young people better understand what sextortion is, how to protect against it, and how to talk about this growing and devastating threat.