ST. PAUL — A Minnesota boy makes a new friend in an online game. He thinks it's a cute girl around his age. After chatting for a while, she sends him a nude photo of herself and asks for one in return. He sends a photo and suddenly his new friend stops being friendly. She is actually an overseas criminal who demands money or says that photo will be sent to his parents and friends. Panicked and ashamed, the boy has no idea what to do next.
This and similar scenarios play out every day in homes around Minnesota. Financial sextortion is a growing issue affecting children and families in our state and around the country. Sextortion happens when someone tricks a person into sending them explicit photos then demands something in return for not sharing the photos. The extortionist often demands more pictures, videos, meeting for sex acts or money. The recent rise in cases has primarily been financial sextortion – simple blackmail.
Law enforcement nationwide received more than 7,000 reports related to online financial sextortion involving children in 2022, according to the FBI. They identified at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys. Tragically, more than a dozen children committed suicide because they felt there was no way out from the sextortion scheme. FBI data shows a large portion of these cases originate outside the U.S., primarily in West African countries. That makes these cases extremely difficult to investigate or prosecute. Prevention is the best way to keep children safe.
“It doesn't matter where in our state you live. If your child uses the internet, they are at risk," said Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson. “Parents and caregivers, you are the first line of defense when your child is online. Talk with them about being safe, especially when meeting new people and sharing images or videos."
A Minnesota mom learned that lesson firsthand just a few weeks ago when her son fell victim to a sextortion scheme. In this video she recounts how quickly the criminals manipulated her son into sending explicit pictures of himself. Thankfully, he went to his parents for help. BCA Predatory Crimes agents are now investigating this case, along with many just like it involving families around the state.
“We need parents and trusted adults to have ongoing, open lines of communication with the children in their lives," said Drew Evans, superintendent of the Department of Public Safety's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. “A child needs to know they have somewhere to turn. If you believe a child has been victimized, please let them know they haven't done anything wrong and they can come to you if this or something like it happens to them. They are not in trouble, they are not alone, and there is help available."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has outlined steps parents and caregivers can take if their child falls victim to a sextortion scheme:
- Get help before deciding to pay. Cooperating with the demands rarely stops the extortion or harassment.
- Report the predator's account via the platform's safety feature.
- Block the predator but do not delete the profile or messages because they could be useful to law enforcement.
- NCMEC can help you get the images off the internet if they were posted.
“As a parent and a grandparent, I know it can be awkward to talk to your children about sex," said Jacobson. “If you need help starting that conversation, there are resources available. Having a frank and honest talk with your child could be the difference. This can and is happening to Minnesota families and the consequences can be deadly."
FBI resources and conversation starters: fbi.gov/sextortion
Safe Harbor Regional Navigators (MN only): health.state.mn.us/communities/safeharbor/response/navigators.html
Suicide Crisis Line: Call 988 or visit 988lifeline.org/