Sextortion 

An Online Threat to Kids and Teens

The FBI has seen a huge increase in the number of cases involving children and teens being threatened and coerced by adults into sending explicit images online—a crime called sextortion.

Sextortion can start on any site, app, or game where people meet and communicate. In some cases, the first contact from the criminal will be a threat. The person may claim to already have a revealing picture or video of a child that will be shared if the victim does not 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 with someone who is offering something of value. The adult will use threats, gifts, money, flattery, lies, or other methods to get a young person to produce an image.

After the criminals have one or more videos or pictures, they threaten to share publish that content, or they threaten violence, to get the victim to produce more images. The shame, fear, and confusion children feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse. Caregivers and young people should understand how the crime occurs and openly discuss online safety.

If young people are being exploited, they are the victim of a crime and should report it. Contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.

Stock image of girl on smartphone with following text: 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.

What Kids and Teens Need to Know 

  • 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 communicating with anyone online. 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 or she 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. Say 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 friends, classmates, or family members are being victimized, listen to them with kindness and understanding. Tell them you are sorry 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:

      1. 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.

      2. Be wary of anyone you encounter for the first time online. Block or ignore messages from strangers.

      3. Be aware that people can pretend to be anything or anyone online. Videos and photos are not proof that people are who they claim to be. Images can be altered or stolen. In some cases, predators have even taken over the social media accounts of their victims.

      4. Be suspicious if you meet someone on one game or app and this person asks you to start talking on a different platform.

      5. Be in the know. Any content you create online—whether it is a text message, photo, or video—can be made public. And nothing actually "disappears" online. Once you send something, you don’t have any control over where it goes next.

      6. 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.

What Caregivers Need to Know 

  • Why would any child or teen agree to do such a thing?
    • The individuals carrying out this crime are skilled and ruthless and have honed their techniques and approaches to maximize their chances at success. The entry point to a young person can be any number of mobile or online sites, applications, or games. The approach may come as compliments or flattery or the pretense of beginning a romantic relationship.

      Another entry point is to offer children something they value in exchange for a taking a quick picture. This could be the possibility of a modeling contract; online game credits or codes; or money, cryptocurrency, and gift cards.

      The third common point of entry is to go right to threats by either claiming they already have an image of the young person that they will distribute or threatening to harm the child or other people or things the child cares about. Once perpetrators have the first image, they use the threat of exposure or other harm to keep the child producing more and more explicit material.
  • But my child would never do that.
    • The FBI has interviewed victims as young as 8, and the crime affects children of both genders and crosses all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The victims are honor-roll students, the children of teachers, student athletes, etc. The only common trait among victims is internet access.
  • Why don’t the victims tell someone or ask for help?
    • The cycle of victimization continues because children are afraid—afraid of the repercussions threatened by the criminal and afraid they will be in trouble with their parents, guardians, or law enforcement. By the time children are victims, they have done something that may be generating feelings of shame and embarrassment. The criminal may also be telling them they have produced child pornography and will be prosecuted for it. In addition, they may fear their access to their phone or computer will be taken away from them as a result of their actions.
  • How do I protect the young people I know? 
    • Information-sharing and open lines of communication are the best defense. Young people need to know this crime is happening and understand where the risks are hiding. Explain to the children in your life that people can pretend to be anyone or anything online, a stranger reaching out to them online may be doing so with bad intent, and no matter what the platform or application claims, nothing “disappears” online. If they take a photo or video, it always has the potential to become public.

      You may choose to place certain limits on your children’s Internet use or spot check their phones and other devices to see what applications they are using and with whom they are communicating. This can be part of an open and ongoing conversation about what it and is not appropriate online. It also may be worth considering a rule against devices in bedrooms overnight or shutting off Wi-Fi access in the overnight hours. Caregivers may also want to review the settings on a young person’s social media accounts with them. Keeping accounts private can prevent predators from gathering their personal information.

      The other crucial element is to keep the door open to your children so that they know they can come to you and ask for help. Let them know that your first move will be to help—always. These predators are powerful because of fear, and the victims suffer ever more negative consequences as the crime carries on over days, weeks, and months. If you are the adult a child trusts with this information, comfort them, help them understand they have been the victim of a crime, and help them report it to law enforcement.
  • How can I talk to my kids about sextortion?
    • Here are three 30-second conversations you can have with your kids or kids you know.

      The New Version of Don’t Talk to Strangers
      - 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.

      The Power of a Picture
      - 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’m Here to Help
      - 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.

News and Multimedia

Stories 

Videos 

FBI Special Agent Brian Herrick defines sextortion and talks about how young people are being manipulated and coerced into creating and sharing sexually explicit content online.

Transcript / Visit Video Source

Ashley Reynolds was 14 when she was victimized by online predator Lucas Michael Chansler in 2009.

Transcript / Visit Video Source

An FBI special agent defines sextortion and provides tips to avoid falling prey to online predators.

Transcript / Visit Video Source


Additional Resources