The FBI and the law enforcement agencies of four U.S. allies are sounding the alarm about a dramatic increase in so-called "sextortion" schemes targeting minors on gaming apps and other digital platforms, saying it has become a global crisis.
Sextortion schemes, in which victims are coerced into sending explicit images and extorted for money, have victims of all ages but recent incidents suggest teenage boys are the primary targets.
On gaming sites and video chat applications, predators, often adults based in West Africa and posing as young girls, trick victims into sending them explicit videos or photos and then threaten to release the material unless they send money or gift cards.
In a joint warning, the FBI and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, said they have seen an "explosion" in the number of such cases over the past year. The problem is happening around the world, they said.
"Financial sextortion has a far wider impact than just our country and our kids — it is a global crisis that demands everyone's attention," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. "The FBI is working hand-in-hand with our international partners to prevent children from becoming victims of this tragic crime. We all have a duty to support and empower victims to come forward and show them that there is life after images."
The warning comes after the Department of Justice reported in December that more than 3,000 minors, primarily boys, had been targeted by financial sextortion in 2022, a sharp increase over previous years. More than a dozen victims committed suicide.
Predators typically target minors between the ages of 14 and 17 though victims as young as 10 have been identified, according to the Justice Department.
"Even though financial sextortion is committed virtually, it can have serious impacts offline," the FBI said in a statement. "After the threats and aggression, victims may feel alone, ashamed, scared, and these feelings can lead to children resorting to self harm."
Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said her center has received more than 10,000 sextortion-related reports in the past year.
"We understand how young victims of this crime can feel like there's no way out, but we want them to know that they're not alone," DeLaune said in a statement, urging parents to talk to their children.