Note: This is the second part of a story that was originally published on May 30, 2019. As the new school year begins, the FBI is seeking to inform students about sextortion so they know how to avoid risky situations online and to ask for help if they are being victimized. The original story as well as multiple resources can be found below or by using the floating menu on the right.
FBI Launches Sextortion Awareness Campaign in Schools
Youth Should Be On Guard Online
Students in many high schools and middle schools will soon be walking by FBI posters warning them of a crime that begins on their smartphones, computers, and game consoles.
“The goal of our Stop Sextortion campaign is to alert young people to one of the risks that they can encounter online,” said Supervisory Special Agent Brian Herrick, assistant chief of the FBI’s Violent Crime Section. “Both youth and caregivers need to understand that a sexual predator can victimize children or teens in their own homes through the devices they use for gaming, homework, and communicating with friends.”
Sextortion begins when a predator reaches out to a young person over a game, app, or social media account. Through deception, manipulation, money and gifts, or threats, the predator convinces the young person to produce an explicit video or image. When the young person starts to resist requests to make more images, the criminal will use threats of harm or exposure of the early images to pressure the child to continue producing content.
“These predators are really good at targeting youth,” said Special Agent Kiffa Shirley in the FBI’s Billings Resident Agency in Montana (part of the Salt Lake City Field Office). Shirley recently investigated a case where the criminal offered money in exchange for explicit images from teens. That man, Tyler Daniel Emineth, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for his crimes.
“Young people don’t seem to have an on-guard mentality when it comes to strangers contacting them through the Internet,” said Shirley. “And many teens feel less inhibited about sharing online.”
That sense of trust and comfort allows a criminal to coerce a young person into creating and sending an image, which begins the cycle of victimization.
The Stop Sextortion campaign seeks to inform students of the crime so they know how to avoid risky situations online and know to ask for help if they are being victimized.
What Kids and Teens Need to Know About Sextortion
What is sextortion?
Sextortion describes a crime that happens online when an adult convinces a person who is younger than 18 to share sexual pictures or perform sexual acts on a webcam.
How does it start?
Sextortion can start on any site where people meet and communicate. Someone may contact you while you are playing a game online or reach out over a dating app or one of your social media accounts.
In some cases, the first contact from the criminal will be a threat. The person may claim they already have a picture or video of you that they will share if you don’t send more pictures. More often, however, this crime starts when young people believe they are communicating with someone their own age who is interested in a relationship or someone who is offering something of value. The adult can use threats, gifts, money, flattery, lies, or other methods to get a young person to produce these images.
After the criminal has one or more videos or pictures, they use the threat of sharing or publishing that content to get the victim to produce more images.
The adult has committed a crime as soon as they ask a young person for a single graphic image.
Why do young people agree to do this?
The people who commit this crime have studied how to reach and target children and teens.
One person the FBI put in prison for this crime was a man in his 40s who worked as a youth minister so he could learn how teens talked to each other. Then, he created social media profiles where he pretended to be a teenage girl. This “girl” would start talking to boys online and encourage them to make videos.
Another person offered money and new smartphones to his victims.
In one case, the criminal threatened a girl—saying he would hurt her and bomb her school—if she didn’t send pictures.
Other cases start with the offer of currency or credits in a video game in exchange for a quick picture.
How do you know who can be trusted online?
That’s what is so hard about online connections. The FBI has found that those who commit this crime may have dozens of different online accounts and profiles and are communicating with many young people at the same time—trying to find victims.
Be extremely cautious when you are speaking with someone online who you have not met in real life. It’s easy to think: I’m on my phone, in my own house, what could possibly happen? But you can very quickly give a criminal the information and material he needs to do you harm.
But how can this harm me?
It’s true that these criminals don’t usually meet up with kids in real life, but the victims of this crime still experience negative effects. The criminals can become vicious and non-stop with their demands, harassment, and threats. Victims report feeling scared, alone, embarrassed, anxious, and desperate. Many feel like there’s no way out of the situation.
What do I do if this is happening to me?
If you are ready, reach out to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or report the crime online at tips.fbi.gov. Our agents see these cases a lot and have helped thousands of young people. Our goals are to stop the harassment, arrest the person behind the crime, and help you get the support you need.
If you’re not feeling ready to speak to the FBI, go to another trusted adult. Tell them you are being victimized online and need help. Talking about this can feel impossible, but there are people who can help. You are not the one in trouble.
How can you say I won’t be in trouble?
You are not the one who is breaking the law. This situation can feel really confusing, and the criminals count on you feeling too unsure, scared, or embarrassed to tell someone. Even if this started on an app or site that you are too young to be on. Even if you felt okay about making some of the content. Even if you accepted money or a game credit or something else, you are not the one who is in trouble. Sextortion is a crime because it is illegal and wrong for an adult to ask for, pay for, or demand graphic images from a minor.
How can I help someone else who is in this situation?
If you learn a friend, classmate, or family member is being victimized, listen to them with kindness and understanding. Tell them you are sorry that this is happening to them and that you want to help. Let them know that they are the victim of a crime and have not done anything wrong. Encourage them to ask for help and see if you can help them identify a trusted adult to tell.
How do I protect myself and my friends?
Your generation can be the generation that shuts down these criminals. Awareness and sensible safety practices online, along with a willingness to ask for help, can put an end to this exploitation. The FBI agents who work on these cases want you to know these six things:
- Be selective about what you share online. If your social media accounts are open to everyone, a predator may be able to figure out a lot of information about you.
- Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
- Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that a person is who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen.
- Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and they ask you to start talking to them on a different platform.
- Be in the know. Any content you create online—whether it is a text message, photo, or video—can be made public. And once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.
- Be willing to ask for help. If you are getting messages or requests online that don’t seem right, block the sender, report the behavior to the site administrator, or go to an adult. If you have been victimized online, tell someone.
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.
The below language can be used for school newsletters and websites.
Notice from the FBI: Understand Sextortion and How Your Child Could be at Risk
The FBI is seeing an alarming increase in cases that involve adults coercing children into producing sexual images and videos online, a crime called sextortion.
These predators have developed tactics that allow them to exploit children through their connected devices within their own homes.
The FBI has provided posters to your school to help raise awareness of this crime. Take a moment to learn how sextortion works and how to talk to your children about it. Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
Note: Part one of this story is aimed at educating parents, caregivers, and educators about sextortion. The FBI is seeing a growing number of cases involving young people who are manipulated, threatened, or coerced into creating explicit content by an adult online.
Youth Face a Risk of Sextortion Online
One victim was a 14-year-old boy from West Virginia. Another victim from Michigan was only 12. Yet another was a 17-year-old girl from Ohio who attempted suicide in a desperate try to escape the situation.
In total, the FBI was able to identify 20 young people who were harassed, threatened, and sexually exploited online by an Indiana man who had served as a youth minister in his community.
When the FBI arrested Richard Finkbiner in April 2012, the 40-year-old had more than 22,000 videos of webcam feeds, much of it sexually explicit content that he had obtained from young people nationwide. Investigators believe he had dozens more victims that they could not identify, perhaps hundreds more.
The Finkbiner case is one in a long list of sextortion cases that have been investigated or prosecuted in the last two decades. FBI agents say more and more cases cross their desks each year involving young people who are manipulated, threatened, or coerced into creating explicit or pornographic content by an adult online.
The perpetrators employ gaming platforms, social media, and dating and video chat applications to reach their young victims and use any number of ploys—from pretending to be a romantic interest, flattery and attention, offers of money or other items of value, or threats to coerce the child to produce an explicit image.
Once the perpetrator has a single image or video, they will use threats of exposure or other means of coercion to make the child produce more and more images and even more explicit material.
“The second the criminal gets a picture, that child’s life is going to be turned upside down,” said Special Agent Ryan Barrett, who worked on Finkbiner’s case from the FBI’s Indianapolis Field Office. “These people are relentless. They don’t care.”
Finkbiner sent his victims doctored but believable screenshots of their videos on pornographic websites when they refused to comply with his next demand; he also sent lists of friends and family taken from the young people’s social media accounts with threats to widely share their material. Seeing some of the messages Finkbiner sent his victims can help make clear how threatening and brutal these perpetrators can be:
“I wont get caught im a hacker i covered my tracks.”
“If u don't play i promise ill f*** your life over.”
Although in most sextortion cases there is no hands-on abuse, the offense is serious, the sentences for offenders are long (50 years in the Finkbiner case), and the impact on a child’s life severe.
Catherine Connell, a licensed social worker and child/adolescent forensic interviewer and program manager with the FBI, says she sees a number of damaging effects from the crime among the victims she works with, including depression, anxiety, hopelessness, fear, and suicidal thoughts. “The trauma level we see with these kids is significant,” said Connell.
To understand how and why young people become victims, it helps to understand the mind of a young person and the techniques used by the criminals.
First, this crime is happening where young people usually feel most comfortable—in their own homes, connected to a device or a game that feels familiar and safe. “It’s important for both parents and children to realize that their guard is typically down when they’re engaging with their device,” said Supervisory Special Agent Brian Herrick, assistant chief of the FBI’s Violent Crime Section.
Second, young people are not adults. Connell stressed that however smart or mature a teen may seem, his or her brain is not fully formed. As they ride through what she calls a perfect storm of social, emotional, sexual, and cognitive development, they are making imperfect decisions. “Your teens are facing decisions with more emotion and less cognitive thinking and judgement,” she said. “They are not thinking, ‘If I do this, this is what may happen, this could be a consequence.’ ”
Finally, young people are up against criminals who have spent a great deal of time and energy learning how to target them. In the Finkbiner case, he used a fake profile of an older teen girl to start a conversation with adolescent and teen boys. He would then stream sexual images he had captured of a female victim and encourage the boy to send pictures or go on a webcam.
In a Portland case involving a 50-year-old perpetrator named David Ernest Otto, he found girls on a photo-sharing site who were open to the flattery, interest, and attention of an older man. He then convinced them to start sending sexually explicit material. He received a 15-year sentence in April 2019 for victimizing six minors.
In another case, a California man who is still awaiting trial threatened to kill, kidnap, and injure his victims to compel them to create content. His bomb threats to a teenage girl in Plainfield, Indiana, even caused police to shut down several schools and stores in 2015.
Herrick also says the FBI is seeing an increasing number of cases start on connected gaming systems, where the competition is intense and the offer of game credits or codes is enough to convince a child to create an explicit image.
Whatever technique pushes the young person to produce the first image, fear, coercion, and manipulation keep the crime going. In addition to the threats and coercion of the criminal, young victims often feel that they have done something wrong and will be punished by parents or caregivers or prosecuted by law enforcement if their actions are discovered.
Connell also stresses that as silly as it may seem to adults, the fear of being discovered and losing access to the technology that feels like a vital part of their lives is a serious concern. “The number one thing is they feel like they’re going to tell mom and dad and their technology will be taken away and they’re going to get in trouble,” said Connell. She also stressed that when the child knows there is photo and video evidence of their abuse, it makes it even harder to talk about.
The FBI agents and forensic interviewers who deal with this crime shared that if a child admits that they are experiencing this type of coercion, parents, educators, and caregivers should move first to help the child and try hard to put aside any anger or desire to punish.
“Your child’s bravest moment may be the moment they tell,” said Special Agent Damon Bateson, who worked on the Otto case and is dealing with other sextortion investigations in the FBI’s Portland Field Office. “You want to be your kid’s best advocate,” Bateson stressed. “Have those conversations so that if something does happen, your child comes to you for help. The last thing you want is someone from the FBI knocking on your door because your child has been victimized in a crime.”
“It’s important from the youngest age, when your child first starts using the Internet, that you have those open dialogue conversations about what’s appropriate,” said Herrick.
Parents and caregivers should make decisions for their family about screen-time rules and limits. Connell does feel regular spot checks and conversations about who your child is conversing with and what applications they are using can be important, but the nature of these ever smaller, ever more powerful, and ever present devices mean children will have many unguarded and unsupervised moments online.
Barrett said that after dealing with many of these cases, he feels the most important messages to young people are simple ones:
- Many people online are not who they say they are.
- Don’t talk to people you don’t know online.
- Understand that any content produced on a web-enabled device can be made public.
- If you are being threatened or coerced online, tell someone. There is help and there is hope.
To report suspected sextortion, call the nearest FBI field office or 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). To make a CyberTipline Report with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), visit report.cybertip.org.
- NCMEC - The Issues: Sextortion
- FBI, This Week Podcast: Report Sextortion
- FBI, This Week Podcast: Sextortion Activity on the Rise
- Esta Semana el en FBI Podcast: Sextorsión
- FBI Video: What is Sextortion?
- FBI Violent Crimes Against Children/Online Predators Page
- FBI Story (1/26/18): Online Predator Used Familiar Tactics to Victimize 12-Year-Old Girl
- FBI Story (2/5/13): Sextortion Cons Target Minors
- When you’re online, has anyone you don’t know ever tried to contact or talk to you?
- What did you do or what would you do if that happened?
- Why do you think someone would want to reach a kid online?
- You know, it’s easy to pretend to be someone you’re not online and not every person is a good person. Make sure you block or ignore anything that comes in from someone you don’t know in real life.
- Has anyone you know ever sent a picture of themselves that got passed around school or a team or club?
- What’s possible anytime you send someone a picture?
- What if that picture were embarrassing?
- Can you think about how someone could use that kind of picture against a person?
- I read an article today about kids being pressured to send images and video of their bodies to a person they met online. Have you ever heard about anything like that?
- Sometimes they were being threatened and harassed—scary stuff.
- You know, if you are ever feeling like something is going on—online or off—that feels scary or wrong or over your head, my first concern is going to be helping you. You can always come to me.