As parents, we warn our kids to be careful who they talk to on the internet. But when someone online pretends to be another person, they may use this false identity to take advantage of your adolescent or teenager.
Online predators can have devastating effects on young people. Steps like having a family media plan and setting parental controls and privacy settings on your kids' phones can help protect them. But it is also important to have conversations with them about online scams, trust and what to do when someone you do not know tries to talk to them.
What is sextortion?
These scams, sometimes known as "catfishing," may result in various cybercrimes. One scam that is becoming more common is known as sextortion. This is when someone is coerced into sending explicit images online and extorted for additional explicit material or money.
A sextortion scammer typically targets teenagers and pretends to be around the victim's age. They often say they are interested in a relationship. The scammer may send an explicit photo and then ask for one in return. If the victim sends the explicit photo, the scammer will then extort them for more explicit materials or money. They can even hack into electronic devices with malware to access to personal files and control the computer's web camera without your child knowing it.
With sextortion scams becoming more common, the FBI recently issued a National Public Safety Alert. More than 3,000 cases of sextortion against minors were reported in 2022. But many more may go unreported because victims of sextortion face heavy amounts of pressure and often feel embarrassed.
Sextortion scams & mental health
Sextortion scams can lead to a feeling of depression or hopelessness. There have been over a dozen reported cases of teens who have died by suicide after being sextorted. One victim's mother, Pauline Stewart, shares her son's story through the San Jose Police Department to warn parents of the dangers of social media and scammers.
Stewart's son, Ryan, was a victim of sextortion during his senior year of high school. An online scammer pretended to be a young girl interested in Ryan. The cybercriminal sent an explicit photo and asked Ryan to send one in return. When he did, the scammer threatened to share the photo on social media if Ryan didn't send money. Fearing for his reputation, Ryan sent the money. Then, when the scammers demanded more money than Ryan could access, they urged him to end his life. In a note Ryan left behind, he described his embarrassment.
Another teen, Gavin Guffey, has drawn even more attention to the dangers of sextortion. Gavin died by suicide at age 17 after being misled and sextorted online in similar circumstances. His father, who is now a South Carolina state representative, pushed for a bill called "Gavin's Law." Under this bill, scammers can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if the victim of sextortion is a minor. It makes sextortion a felony offense and an aggravated felony offense if the victim is a minor. The bill also allows for education on sextortion scams in school, which is a step towards awareness and prevention of situations like Ryan and Gavin's.
How to talk with your teen about online predators
When you talk with your teen about potential risks of social media, including sextortion, try to keep two goals in mind. One is to give them information they can use to protect themselves. Another is to create a space of trust and openness, so children feel comfortable coming to you if they have made a mistake or are facing an issue. Assure them you'll be there for them, no matter what.
Online safety tips to share with your child:
Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are—or who they say they are.
Avoid clicking on links in e-mails or open attachments from people you do not know.
Turn off your electronic devices and web cameras when not in use. And since webcams or recording devices can be hacked and activated remotely, consider covering the camera webcam with a sticky note or piece of tape when you're not using it.
Don't accept friend requests from anyone online or you don't know in real life. Also, if someone you don't know asks for personal information that identifies you, say no.
Don't use passwords that are easy to guess. Examples to avoid include your pets' names, birth dates or anything that someone can guess by reviewing your social media profiles.
Also make sure your child knows:
They should not be afraid to talk to you, their pediatrician or another trusted adult.
If they are getting sextortion threats, they' are not alone. The person making the threats is likely an adult pretending to be a teenager and targeting lots of people. Sextortion is illegal and should be reported to law enforcement.
It's important to talk with your teens about potential risks of social media, including sextortion. The goal is to create a space of trust and openness, so your teen feels comfortable coming to you if they have made a mistake or are facing an issue.