The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warns of an online scheme targeting teenage boys ages 14 to 17.
Predators are requesting inappropriate photos to later blackmail the victims, a crime known as sextortion.
While any adolescent can be a victim, the FBI is seeing an increase in reports among young boys.
“They are being friended or messaged by some individual reporting to be a young female and then sextorted for a sexually explicit image or video of themselves,” explained FBI’s Supervisory Special Agent Amanda Detterline.
Sexual exchanges can occur on all sorts of platforms: social media, online gaming or forums.
“These individuals are asking our boys for money in return of not sending their image out online to other individuals,” added Detterline. “Our boys end up paying some type of money at that point to not get their image spread out across social media platforms.”
On the other side of the screen, authorities are seeing a trend.
“Typically it is an adult, typically an adult male that is pretending to be a young female,” said Detterline.
Anyone convicted of this type of crime could face a life sentence. Perpetrators can be located anywhere in the U.S. or even overseas.
“We're seeing requests for money directly through money applications. We are also seeing requests for gift cards,” said Detterline.
According to statistics from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, in 2021, the agency received over 18,000 Sextortion-related complaints adding up to more than $13.6 million in losses.
“Parents in general should be monitoring their kids’ social media,” said Detterline.
Experts said the red flags can help detect if a child is a victim of harassment online.
Suzanne Grimmesey with the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness recommends keeping an eye on potential red flags.
“Spending more or less time online, avoiding school or activities, appearing depressed or frequently switching the screen when someone comes to the room,” said Grimmesey.
Parents are advised to maintain an open line for communication.
“No matter the child’s age, parents can also be a teacher for cyberbullying," explained Grimmesey. “Some people refer to them as the 4 'P': What privacy is, what predators are, pornography, pop ups, so teaching them, of course at their age level, so that they know what to look out for.”
Establishing and reinforcing rules for kids and teenagers is also helpful to prevent any kind of online abuse.
“When they are allowed to have screen time to be on their computer, cellphone and when they’re not, where they are allowed to be on the computer,” said Grimmesey.
If a child falls victim to this scheme, the FBI recommends reporting it right away. For more information, click here.
The agency encourages keeping any evidence which can include a social media username, email address, phone number or bank information to help investigators find the suspect.
Both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have a 24/7 access line available in Spanish as well, which connects someone struggling with mental health issues to the appropriate help.
To reach the Santa Barbara County access line, call 1 (888)-868-1649.
To reach the San Luis Obispo County access line, call 1 (800) 838-1381.
In case of an emergency, call 911.