South Florida kids part of staggering rise in ‘sextortion,’ officials say

South Florida kids are falling victim to a new kind of ‘sextortion’ scam, officials say, a rising threat across the country that has led to more than a dozen suicides.

The crime has historically involved blackmailing someone, often a girl, by threatening to reveal explicit photos, in many cases forcing them to send even more. But since last year, criminals have begun targeting young boys who often choose not to tell anyone, extorting them financially, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

“The numbers out there are staggering for the last two years,” Sgt. Thomas McInerney, who works in the Broward Sheriff’s Office Internet Crimes Against Children division, said at a news conference held by the Sheriff’s Office and Broward school district Friday. “But a lot of males don’t report because of the shame, the fear, and embarrassment. They just don’t report.”

Typically, the extortionist poses as a romantic interest on social media apps like Instagram or Snapchat, enticing the victim into sending sexually explicit photos. Then they use the photos to blackmail the victim, asking for a certain amount of money, continuing to ask for more if the victim pays.

BSO is seeing approximately five sextortion cases a week, McInerney said at the news conference, which included Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony, Broward Schools Superintendent Peter Licata and School Board Member Jeff Holness.

Broward County Public School board member Dr. Jeff Holness, Superintendent Dr. Peter B. Licata and Sheriff Gregory Tony hold a press conference on Friday, December 8, 2023 in Lauderhill, warning teens that they're the target of an internet scam called Sextortion. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Broward School Board member Jeff Holness, Superintendent Dr. Peter B. Licata and Sheriff Gregory Tony hold a news conference on sextortion on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Lauderhill. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

But he thinks the numbers are “grossly underestimated” because the victims are so afraid to report, perhaps blaming themselves, believing they will get in trouble.

“I want you to think of this as preying on children,” Licata told the public on Friday. “… It’s the same mentality. It’s sick, it’s evil, and we have to protect our children.”

Though the crimes often happen outside of school hours, he sees schools as the “epicenter.” In response, the district has begun an awareness campaign in hopes of educating students before they become victims, distributing posters throughout schools including Lauderhill 6-12, where the news conference took place.

Officials warn that sextortion poses a bigger threat to kids than school shootings because it’s so pervasive, but receives little attention in comparison.

“I think so many of us, in particular, our parents and a community are so focused on concerns about the threat of active shooters and school violence, and they typically ignore the reality of what’s happening out here,” said Tony. “And sextortion is more of a threat to our students and to our school population.”

The crime has been around for decades, officials say, but social media has exacerbated it, opening up new ways for criminals to target victims. The phenomenon is “rapidly escalating” nationally, FBI director Christopher Wray warned Congress on Tuesday.

The crimes have been a factor in over a dozen suicides across the country; the FBI says it has seen a tenfold increase since 2021. Oftentimes, the criminals aren’t even local or national, but live in other countries, making it harder to prosecute them.

In May, a 17-year-old boy from Michigan named Jordan DeMay died by suicide after officials say two men from Nigeria messaged him, posing as a girl on Instagram. When DeMay sent them pictures, they threatened to send them to his friends and family.

His death led the FBI to uncover a sextortion scheme; the men are accused of interacting with hundreds of other accounts. The two men have since been extradited to the U.S.

“They will face charges in the U.S. for what they did to Jordan, but also unfortunately, a whole bunch of other young men and teenage boys,” Wray told The Associated Press. “You’re talking about a crime that doesn’t respect borders. We make sure our partnerships don’t have any borders either.”

Though the international nature of the crimes may make them more difficult to prosecute, Tony said that a two-pronged approach will reduce the number of victims: first, by educating the “targeted population” ahead of time, such as through the awareness campaign, and second, using new technology within the internet crimes division, which is equipped with tools to handle crimes on social media specifically.

Licata said the school district is going to look at training school staff, including teachers and counselors, on how to respond to reports of sextortion.

“It’s something we didn’t deal with 20 years ago, but it’s something we have now, and it’s reality,” he said. “And let’s stay out in front of it, because our kids’ lives are too valuable.”

Broward County Public School board member Dr. Jeff Holness, Superintendent Dr. Peter B. Licata and Sheriff Gregory Tony hold a press conference on Friday, December 8, 2023 in Lauderhill, warning teens that they're the target of an internet scam called Sextortion. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Posters distributed in Broward schools include a scannable QR code with more information on sextortion, a picture of an example sextortion text conversation and advice for students. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The posters distributed across Broward schools include a scannable QR code with more information, a picture of an example sextortion text conversation, and advice for students:

  • The blackmailer is to blame.
  • Show a parent or trusted adult right away.
  • Do not pay money or comply with the blackmailer’s requests.
  • Report the account through the platform’s safety feature.
  • Block the suspect, but do not delete the messages or your profile.
  • Report the crime to law enforcement.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. 

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