PITTSBURGH – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations – Philadelphia (HSI), the Federal Bureau of Investigation – Pittsburgh (FBI), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), is issuing a public safety alert regarding an alarming increase in the online exploitation of children and teens.
Reports of the online enticement of minors have dramatically spiked in recent months—including reports of sextortion. “Sextortion”—a term that combines the words “sex” and “extortion”—occurs when an individual, often a child, is threatened or blackmailed, usually online, by a person demanding sexual content (photos/videos) or money from the child against his or her will. This may happen when a child or teen shares an image with someone they thought they knew or trusted, but the individual has gained the child’s trust through deceit, coercion, or deception (and sometimes, predators falsely claim that they have obtained photos that the child may have shared with someone else). Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends additional images, money, or gift cards. Often the predators demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications. In many cases, however, predators release the images even if payments are made. The shame, fear, and confusion that victims experience when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse.
Sextortion schemes occur in online environments where young people feel most comfortable—using common social media sites, gaming sites, or video chat applications that feel familiar and safe. On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males between 14- and 17-years old but victims as young as 10 years old have been interviewed.
LEARN MORE – RESOURCES FOR TALKING TO YOUR CHILD
A new documentary by Auroris Media explores a large-scale HSI investigation into one perpetrator of the sexual exploitation of children. The documentary, Sextortion: The Hidden Pandemic, shows how child predators target their victims on the internet and how one individual was able to target children all over the world and extort them for sexually explicit images. The documentary is available to rent or purchase on all major streaming services.
Generally, sextortion only stops when a child either tells an adult or the offender is identified by law enforcement. Because prevention is key to helping unsuspecting children from falling victim to online predators, the producers of the film, in partnership with the National Center for Missing Children, used parts of the documentary to create resources to share with parents and educators. The resources include three modules, along with a film discussion guide—with discussion questions and potential answers—to assist adults in talking with young people about their use of technology and the possibility of online exploitation. Talking with children and teens about sextortion can be uncomfortable. These resources aim to help make the conversation easier. The resources help young people recognize online exploitation and sextortion and encourage children to report their victimization to adults. The resource modules with discussion guides can be found at: https://www.missingkids.org/blog/2022/sextortion-the-hidden-pandemic
Additional information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.
WHAT IF YOU OR YOUR CHILD IS A VICTIM?
HSI and the FBI encourage the public to report suspected child predators and any suspicious activity. You can contact HSI through its toll-free tip line at 1-866-347-2423 or by completing its online tip form. Both are staffed around the clock. From outside the United States and Canada, callers should dial 802-872-6199. Hearing impaired users may call TTY 802-872-6196.
Contact your local FBI field office (in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia at 412-432-4000), call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has outlined steps parents and young people can take if they or their child are a victim of sextortion, including:
• Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.
• Get help before deciding whether to pay money or otherwise comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.
• REPORT the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
• BLOCK the predator and DO NOT DELETE the profile or messages because that can be helpful to law enforcement in identifying and stopping them.
• Let NCMEC help get explicit images of you off the internet.
• Visit org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere to learn how to notify companies yourself or visit cybertipline.org to report to us for help with the process.
• Ask for help. This can be a very complex problem and may require help from adults or law enforcement.
• If a victim does not feel that they have adults in their corner, the child can reach out directly to NCMEC for support at firstname.lastname@example.org or call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST.
LAW ENFORCEMENT WORK IN THIS DISTRICT
Reported sextortion can be investigated and often prosecuted. For example, the FBI – Pittsburgh Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force investigated Markell Smith who used many different Instagram usernames to threaten and extort minor females online in 2018 and 2019. On July 6, 2022, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV sentenced Smith to 17-and-a-half years in prison. See https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdpa/pr/pittsburgh-man-sentenced-17-years-sexual-exploitation-minor. Similarly, Homeland Security Investigations, the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General-Child Predator Unit, and various local law enforcement partners investigated Jacob Kolonis for threatening and extorting numerous minors within the Western District of Pennsylvania and Ohio in late 2019 through early 2020. Kolonis extorted his victims by falsely telling them he had obtained nude images of his minor victims; using this leverage, Kolonis extorted his victims into creating sexually explicit material over Snapchat. On Aug. 4, 2022, U.S. District Judge Robert J. Colville sentenced Kolonis to 20 years in prison for his online exploitation of the minors. See https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdpa/pr/judge-sentences-southwest-pa-man-20-years-prison-production-and-attempted-production.
“It is vitally important to provide parents and caregivers the information they need to prevent this crime before it happens and to help victims come forward if it does,” said U.S. Attorney Cindy K. Chung. “We will continue to partner with federal, state and local law enforcement to protect children from sexual exploitation in all its despicable forms.”
“HSI has seen a disturbing rise in sextortion cases recently. I want every parent and child to know that HSI has a unique array of skilled agents and resources working diligently as we take a victim-centered approach to these atrocious crimes,” said William S. Walker, Special Agent in Charge of HSI’s Philadelphia office. “These cases are incredibly challenging to investigate and therefore require immediate law enforcement attention to identify the predators behind these schemes. Please do not succumb to these predators alone. Reach out to our tip line or go to our website to get help.”
“These criminals have become very good at luring in and extorting young children,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Mike Nordwall. “They try to hide behind the anonymity of the internet, but the FBI is not going to let them prey on our children. In addition to community education, we want adults to talk with kids about the dangers of sextortion and sending pictures or other information to people they don’t know. Together, we can all work to keep our most vulnerable citizens safe.”
“The sexual exploitation of children is a deplorable crime. HSI special agents will continue to exhaust every resource to identify, locate, and apprehend predators to ensure they face justice,” said Steve K. Francis, HSI Acting Executive Associate Director. “Criminals who lurk in platforms on the internet are not as anonymous as they think. HSI will continue to leverage cutting-edge technology to end these heinous acts.”