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What Is Sextortion? Keep Teens Safe from Online Predators

It can happen in a matter of minutes, but the trauma can stay with victims forever. Unlike cyberbullying, which most parents know about and discuss with their teens, sextortion isn’t on a lot of parents’ radars, leaving kids unguarded and vulnerable to attacks.

According to the FBI, sextortion occurs when one person, using threats or manipulation, coerces another person into sharing sexually explicit images over the Internet or a cell phone. Even if the perpetrator doesn’t do physical harm, teens can still experience emotional and psychological damage. Their images could also find their way onto the Internet and the dark web. Sextortion victims have committed suicide because they were so ashamed of being exposed to their friends and families.

Sextortion is particularly dangerous because many parents don’t realize their child is at risk. But the statistics tell us a different story:

  •       According to the FBI, sextortion cases are up 60 percent in the last five years
  •       71 percent of all sextortion victims are minors
  •       78 percent of sextortion victims are girls, with an average age of 15
  •       83 percent of sextortion cases involve social media manipulation
  •       1 in 4 minors victimized by sextortion sought medical or mental health care

How Sextortion Works

Strangers convince their victims to share explicit photos through a sophisticated process known as grooming. A predator will initiate contact with a teen over a public platform, such as social media or gaming sites, and then quickly moves the conversation to a private chatroom or messaging app. The grooming may be subtle at first, but depending on the minor’s age and sex, it can progress fairly quickly.

These predators are smart, conniving, and very adept at impersonating tweens and teens online. In order to lure the child into sharing explicit images, they may use photos from other teens as their profile image, and they may also use graphic photos and videos of previous sextortion victims which they pretend to be their own,

Know the Warning Signs

Most teens have been told to be careful of friend requests from strangers, but that alone isn’t enough. It’s also important that they know how to spot red flags in the other person’s online behavior.

There are six warning signs of grooming to watch out for:

  •      The “friend” sends a lot of messages over a short period of time
  •      They ask your teen to keep the relationship a secret
  •      They ask for personal information, such as where the child lives
  •      They try to find out when your teen is alone
  •      They gradually steer the conversations toward sexual themes
  •      And, eventually, they solicit revealing, nude or sexual images from the child

How Do We Keep Teens Safe?

The most effective way to protect your child from sextortion is to know what they are doing online. Don’t be afraid to get involved in your kids’ online lives. For some, this means checking in on their social media activity, while others may choose to establish ground rules and baseline expectations through an “acceptable use” agreement.

Here are some Internet safety rules we encourage you to share with your teen:

  • Set your profiles to private
  • Do not accept friend requests or follow requests from strangers
  • Never share personal information or photos with strangers online
  • Only chat online with people you know in real life
  • Never meet strangers from social media in real life
  • Avoid using hashtags that predators follow, such as #modeling, #bikini, or anything else that indicates revealing images are soon to follow. It’s also important not to share those images in the first place, since predators actively hunt for them online
  • Avoid revealing location data, whether it is GPS-tagging in photos, GPS sharing in apps or “checking in” for regularly scheduled activities
  • For tweens and younger teens, consider adding a disclaimer to their profile that lets everyone know it is being watched (“Monitored by parents”)
  • Encourage your child to have open and honest conversations with you about things that happen online, even if they are embarrassing

Need more internet safety help?

Other Ways to Prevent Sextortion

If you’re looking for ways to monitor your teen’s online activity, in addition to getting their passwords and manually checking their accounts, you can also sign up for one of many available online monitoring tools like Qustodio or KidLogger. These services will monitor your child’s web usage, text messages, visited apps or websites, created photos and their real-time location. Or you could subscribe to a service like FamilyShield, which blocks adult websites and inappropriate content from being accessed over WiFi.

Chris Hadnagy is the founder of Innocent Lives Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is helping to protect kids from online predators. ILF’s nationwide team of cybersecurity professionals works closely with law enforcement agencies, using innovative online investigative tactics and techniques to collect solid evidence and identifying information on these predators to aid in their capture and arrest.

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