Teenaged boys in the United States are increasingly becoming ensnared in online financial "sextortion schemes," impacting at least 3,000 victims and leading to more than a dozen suicides so far, U.S. Justice Department officials warned on Monday.
FBI and Justice Department officials told reporters in a briefing they are actively investigating thousands of tips, and they have already seen a tenfold increase in reported financial sextortion schemes in the first half of 2022 compared with the same time period last year.
In a so-called sextortion scheme, a person is coerced into providing sexually explicit images, and then later extorted for money.
Many of the cases, they said, are originating on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, and once the contact is made, the predators move over to using other messaging applications such as Snapchat or Google Hangouts.
"This is a unique threat," one Justice Department official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The motivation is money. The organization, the scale at which it operates — is quite different than anything we have seen before."
Young girls have often been the target of online sextortion schemes, but the recent rise in incidents has involved teenage boys between the ages of 14 and 17, officials said. Some boys as young as 10 have also been become victims.
Law enforcement officials believe many of the criminals who are targeting young children are based in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. The cases are actively under investigation, and officials said they were not yet aware of any public criminal charges.
FBI officials said they want to warn parents about the rise in sextortion threats ahead of the holiday season, knowing children will be at home and will have greater access to social media. They said the bureau has also received about 4,500 tips related to financial sextortion.
Justice Department officials said Meta, which operates Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has been providing cyber tips through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and it has also been involved in helping training law enforcement officials in West Africa.