Law enforcement officials led by the FBI and the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations division are reporting an alarming increase in incidents of mostly teenage boys being tricked into sending explicit photos and videos of themselves to online scammers who then attempt to extort money from the young victims.
Spokespersons for the FBI, the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where sextortion cases increased dramatically, have told the Washington Blade they so far are unaware of gay teenage boys being targeted for what authorities are calling financial sextortion.
“We have not seen that,” said Catherine Pollicicchio, a spokesperson for the FBI Field Office in Pittsburgh, when asked by the Blade if gay teens were being targeted. “But that doesn’t mean it is not happening. We may not know about it,” she said.
“Homeland Security Investigations has not observed any sextortion investigations that refer specifically to gay teenagers,” said Jason Koontz, a spokesperson for HSI Philadelphia offices.
A spokesperson for the FBI’s headquarters in Washington couldn’t immediately be reached to confirm whether FBI officials are aware of gay teenagers or gay young adults being targeted for sextortion in other parts of the country.
The D.C.-based LGBTQ youth advocacy group SMYAL is also unaware of any gay male teenagers in the D.C. area being targeted for sextortion, according SMYAL spokesperson Hancie Stokes.
But the popular app Grindr reports on its website that adult gay men using Grindr and other gay hookup apps have been targeted for sextortion in ways similar to how the straight teenage boys have been targeted.
The scammers are persuading the gay adult men to send who they believe is someone interested in a possible sexual hookup or a relationship nude or sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves. The scammer then uses the explicit images to blackmail the victim into sending large sums of money to prevent the scammer from releasing the photos or videos to the victim’s family, friends, or employer.
In a Scam Awareness Guide posted on its website, Grindr says that unlike potential straight targets for sextortion, some of the scammers have threatened to out gay men, including bisexual men married to women, by sending their sexually explicit photos or videos to a spouse or other family members.
In yet another means of carrying out sextortion scams, according to Grindr, some of the scammers have set up a fake profile as an underage person. After tricking the victim into sending explicit images the scammer threatens to report the victim to police for soliciting sex with a minor unless a ransom is paid.
The FBI’s national office in Washington issued a “public safety alert” about the increasing number of sextortion cases targeting teenage males in a Dec. 19 press release.
“Over the past year, law enforcement has received over 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides,” the FBI press statement says.
“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys—and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray in the FBI statement. “The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does,” Wray said.
“Victims may feel like there is no way out – it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone,” Wray said.
The FBI statement says sextortion schemes occur most often through sites where young people interact with each other such as social media, gaming sites, or video chat applications.
“On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target minor males between 14 and 17 years old, but the FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10 years old,” according to the statement. “Through deception, predators convince the young person to produce an explicit video or photo,” it says.
“Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends money or gift cards,” the FBI statement continues. “In many cases, however, predators release the images even if payments are made. The shame, fear, and confusion that victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevents them from asking for help or reporting the abuse,” the FBI statement says.
“A large percentage of these sextortion schemes originate outside of the United States and primarily in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast,” according to the FBI statement.
Jane Clementi, co-founder and CEO of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which advocates for programs to prevent bullying, including cyberbullying, targeting LGBTQ youth, said she and the Clementi Foundation, which is a nationwide group, were unaware of any specific gay youth or young adults being targeted for sextortion.
“The fact that this is on the rise is very disconcerting and means it needs to have more media coverage to inform youth and their parents about the harms and how to deal with the situation,” she told the Blade in an email. “My hope would be that we can prevent this situation from happening in the first place.”
Jane Clementi, her husband, and other family members founded the Clementi Foundation in 2010 a short time after their son Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman student at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, took his own life after being victimized by cyber bullying.
Tyler’s suicide drew international attention when news surfaced that his college roommate secretly pointed his laptop computer camera at Tyler’s bed when he learned that Tyler had a date with another young man and the two planned to engage in intimacy in the dorm room. The roommate informed others that he would be broadcasting a live video of Tyler’s intimate interaction with his date over the internet and would be rebroadcasting it later, a development Tyler became humiliated and devastated over after he learned what had happened.
Jane Clementi said that type of cyberbullying and other forms of what she called revenge porn or nonconsensual porn, in which someone uses private images shared with them in confidence while in a relationship and then shares the photos or videos publicly after the relationship ends has been an issue of concern for many years.
Although it is not the same as financial sextortion, it often has the same harmful impact on victims, those familiar with the two types of scams have said.
“The best place to start is by raising awareness of the issue and by having healthy conversations starting at the youngest of ages, as soon as youth have a device that is connected to the internet,” Clementi said. “And next, parents and youth need to talk through a plan for the inevitable situation they might encounter online, like harassment, intimidation or worse sextortion.”
Grindr says on its website that it has protocols in place to detect and remove fake accounts set up by scammers. “While we detect and block a huge amount of these accounts that you will never see as a user, some still get through,” Grindr says on its website.
Advice from the Grindr Scam Awareness Guide on how to avoid becoming a victim of sextortion and how best to respond if one is targeted for sextortion can be accessed at grindr.com.