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How to protect yourself against sextortion crimes

 The FBI is warning kids, teens, and their families that online sextortion crimes are on the rise.
Jessica Cain
The FBI is warning kids, teens, and their families that online sextortion crimes are on the rise.

As summer vacation starts, teens and tweens will have more time to spend on their computers and mobile devices, but the FBI is cautioning families to remember to surf safely.

Don Chu is the acting assistant special agent in charge at the FBI’s Albany field office. He said sextortion, the crime of an adult coercing a minor to send sexually explicit pictures or videos, is on the rise.

"There is a troubling increase in this type of crime,” Chu said. “In 2002, the FBI and Homeland Security received over 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors."

The cases involved at least 3,000 victims and led to more than a dozen suicides. The victims span across socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, include both males and females, and are as young as eight years old.

Chu said parents and trusted adults can help prevent the crime by creating open lines of communication with teens and kids. They also recommend setting clear boundaries for online activity, including spot-checking phones or keeping phones out of bedrooms overnight.

"Kids are going to want to have their own lives, but it's critical parents understand that they need to know what is going on with what their kids are doing online,” he said.

Chu said the offenders are very skilled, sometimes doing this hundreds of thousands of times in a week. So, he said potential victims should be skeptical when they receive a message.

"(Offenders) have many, many reps in sounding real and sounding convincing, so they will pose as a female teenager in a neighboring county or a neighboring state, and they're extremely believable."

Plus, he recommends parents talk about the power of just one picture.

"One critical part of this offender-victim relationship is sending that first photo,” he said. “Once that photo is sent, the victim loses control of how that photo is used, how that photo is distributed."

The FBI said many teens don’t ask for help because they are afraid of getting in trouble. But Chu said criminals use that as a lever to control their victims.

"We do not go after the victims,” he said. “The FBI's interest is to go after the offenders. So, if a child or a teenager is a victim of financial sextortion, our interest is going after the bad guy."

Chu said if you or a loved one is a victim, do not confront the offender yourself. They’ll likely delete their profiles and won’t be able to be tracked. Contact the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov, file a detailed report, and screen grab as much as you can for evidence.

For more information on how to protect yourself and your family against sextortion, visit the FBI’s informational site here.

For resources on teaching children as young as third grade about online safety, visit here.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.