EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – The practice of “sextortion” is reaching pandemic levels, federal officials say, as ruthless individuals and organized criminals refine the craft of manipulating children into sending explicit images of themselves — and then demand money or more images under threats.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a nearly 50 percent increase in possible “sextortion” cases from 2019 to 2021, as the population spent more time in front of their electronic devices during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In the El Paso sector, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) logged more than 25 such cases last year. The victims’ ages ranged from 9 to 17 years old.
Some of the children are engaged online by criminals in West Africa posing as minors, showering their new American friends with compliments, and filling emotional or self-esteem voids, HSI officials said.
The perpetrators eventually get down to business, begging for risqué photos and videos of the child; in some cases, they take the first step by sending such images not of their real selves but of a previous victim to gain trust.
What follows is an emotional rollercoaster in which the victims – boys and girls alike – are forced to send small amounts of money ($50 to $100) or gift cards to prevent the extortionist from sharing the images. But most of all, the extortionists demand increasingly lewd photos, in some cases for keepsakes, in a lot of cases to commercialize online.
Some children have been known to take their lives before those images reach their social circles, classmates, parents or the dark web, HSI officials said.
“We urge parents to have good communication with their children, to get help when something like this happens,” said Jorge H. Uribarri, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso. “Give us a chance to track the perpetrators, to get you in touch with professionals that can help your child.”
Uribarri urges parents to make sure their child’s social media does not have a public profile and to only respond to friend requests from others that they know. Also, it is a parent’s prerogative to be aware of a child’s internet activity.
HSI on Wednesday is hosting a human trafficking and child exploitation conference at the Administrative Services Center of El Paso Community College, 9050 Viscount Blvd. The 9th annual conference is primarily to help law enforcement and victims’ services providers identify and help victims of a crime authorities suspect is underreported. It coincides with Jan. 11 being National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
“We work with community organizations, with school counselors to make sure the parents of these children know there is assistance available,” said another HSI official, speaking on background. “Our goal is to be victim-centered.”
A parent’s first instinct when learning her child was a victim of “sextortion” may be to delete the images, conversations and message threads. HSI officials urge parents to not destroy the evidence so law enforcement officials can track down the criminal. This, they say, will also protect other children from being victimized.
That’s because the practice of “sextortion” is evolving. HSI officials said criminals systematically go through their victim’s list of friends or contacts to identify potential additional targets. They also look for vulnerabilities, such as whether a victim has posted concerns about an eating disorder, disclosed affiliation to a school club or whose posts point to her feeling alone or depressed.
Some investigators describe “sextortion” of minors as a hideous crime that takes a toll on the young victims. They describe prosecutions in which children have sent anguished messages such as, “Please, don’t do this!” when they are unable to procure more money to their abuser. That is one more reason for parents to comfort their child and reach out to law enforcement, investigators and advocates say.
For additional resources, parents (or children) can call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888, NCMEC at 1-800-843-5678, HSI at 1-866-347-2423, or dial 911. Online, they can visit www.missingkids.com