RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — An internet crime targeting teenagers is becoming more common, and it’s happening right here in the Triangle. It’s called sextortion, and the FBI says it happens more often than you might think.
The crime itself isn’t new, but according to the FBI, the motive and victims have recently changed.
Several years ago, criminals would often target teenage girls with a goal of getting more and more explicit photos. Now the FBI says the most common victims are boys, and the motive is usually about money.
Phones, games and social media are not just part of life for many teenagers, but their primary means of communication and connection. Teens often see the fun, but few recognize the danger.
“We thought we were doing all the right things, we thought we were having all the right conversations with our kids about the technology,” said a father, who lives in the Triangle. CBS 17 is concealing his identity to protect his family’s privacy.
“Late last year, my son was approached by somebody on Instagram that reached out to him,” the father said, noting that his son thought he was chatting with a teenage girl. “There was an exchange of pictures, pictures that were very inappropriate,” he continued.
North Carolina Attorney General, Josh Stein says cases like these are called sextortion.
“Somebody grooms a young person and induces them to send an inappropriate explicit photo and then uses it as blackmail,” Stein said.
According to the FBI, scammers have recently been targeting teenage boys.
“They are asking these boys to send photos, and once they do, they’re then threatening them to say, ‘If you don’t pay a certain amount of money to us, we will release these photos online,'” said Shelley Lynch, public information officer for the FBI.
The father CBS 17 interviewed said his son came to him alarmed.
“He’s like, ‘Dad somebody has gotten my pictures. They’ve sent a screen shot of my friend list and they’re telling me if I don’t give them a thousand-dollar fuel card from a gas station they’re going to send these pictures to all my friend list,'” the dad recalled.
“What went through your mind, as a dad?” CBS 17’s asked him. “Panic,” he replied.
“The first thing panic, anger, frustration with the kids because you try to teach them right, and how could you make such a dumb mistake, but they are kids,” he said.
The FBI says the kids becoming victims are younger than you might expect — mainly “14 to 17-year-[old] range, but we even seen it in children as young as 10,” said Lynch.
The victim in this case was 14. His dad said he wasn’t surprised someone that young would be targeted.
“They’re so naive,” he said. “Especially with social media, the Instagram platform, all the social media platforms, they’re so hungry to get attention and they’re friending up a lot of people that they don’t know.”
“The thing about the internet is you have no idea who’s on the other side of that keyboard,” said Stein.
Lynch added that the scammers will sometimes appear to have a connection to the child.
“Many times what we’re finding are these are friends of friends of friends, so they think they know this person. They actually don’t; it’s a made up account,” she said. “If you dig into this account you’ll see that it was just created and they don’t have any friends and they don’t have any past postings, but they are tricking these children. They are taking advantage of them.”
Stein said that these cases aren’t easy when it comes time to prosecute. It’s “extremely difficult,” he said. “Most of the criminals quite frankly aren’t even in the United States; they’re operating from abroad.”
To have even a chance of stopping these crimes, the FBI needs to hear about them.
In the past 6 months, Lynch says the FBI has received 22 sextortion reports in the Raleigh/Durham area, but she believes that’s an undercount.
“We think that the number is much larger,” she said. “Children are afraid to come forward…they’re afraid to tell their parents.”
She continued to say, “They are afraid they would get in trouble criminally ,which they absolutely would not. They are victims in this case. It is the predators that are taking advantage of them that are obviously the crooks.”
The father who spoke to CBS 17 is grateful his son told him what happened. They contacted law enforcement and didn’t lose any money.
Still, he says it’s scary to think how easily something like this can happen, even in a family that openly discussed the dangers of the internet. He says it’s also worrisome to think how long the consequences may last.
“I can only imagine somebody trying to run for office, or get into college, or get that job and that photo surfaces of them later on down the line,” he said. “One picture, one mistake, one photo, that can haunt you for a long time.”
The Attorney General’s Office also offers an extensive list of internet safety tips, including a “Family Tech Agreement” families can use to help set internet boundaries.