Sarah is a 14-year-old girl from Edmond who plays basketball, has a tight-knit friend group, loves her Goldendoodle named Gracie, and comes from a caring home. Like most girls her age, she is active on social media with easily discoverableaccounts. She prides herself on sharing funny content and keeps her username public so her friends’ friends can follow her online.
Recently, a boy named Ben started posting flattering comments under Sarah’s Instagram photos. Sarah starts to feel close to Ben after messaging him for a few weeks. She talks to him about her friends, her school, what her parents do, and even gives him a tour of her house on Snapchat. She loves that he always asks her about herself, is always excited to get photos of Gracie, and that he’s different from the boys at her school.
Sarah starts to view Ben as more than just a friend. Their relationship becomes romantic. One night, Ben asks Sarah to send him a nude photo. Sarah declines at first, but Ben promises no one will ever see the picture. Sarah trusts Ben enough to send him a topless photo. Ben tells her she’s beautiful and makes her feel more special than ever. He asks for more nude photos, but adds that he wants to see her “pretty face” in the pictures. Sarah decides to send Ben a couple of fully nude photos.
A week later, Ben tells Sarah that he wants her to send a video of herself. Sarah firmly says no. Ben gets angry and threatens to post the nude photos. Her friends, family and even her grandparents will be able to see them, unless she sends him a video of herself naked. Seeing no way out of the situation and fearful of being rejected by her family and friends, Sarah sends Ben the video.
The naked video, along with the nude photos, are quickly posted on several Dark Web sites where predators view and exchange child pornography.
In reality, Ben is a 46-year-old convicted sex offender who lives in another state and has done this to over a dozen other teenage girls across America.
The above fictional story is just one example of how predators groom minors into becoming sextortion victims. There are hundreds of very real cases like it across America each year. The crime of sextortion involves children and teens being threatened and coerced by adults into sending explicit images. Every day, predators research and target children to victimize in Oklahoma.
Child predators pose a major threat to our communities, but children and parents can guard against these vile criminals. Children and teens need to be vigilant when communicating with anyone online. Privacy settings on social media accounts are useful, but education about online predators is vital for children. Sharing personal details or photos with someone they’ve never met in person is extremely risky.
Everyone should also be mindful that the backgrounds of photos posted on social media may contain sensitive information that helps predators identify their victims. School uniforms, license plates and tagging friends on easily discoverable social media accounts reveal personal information to predators and help them build a detailed profile of new targets. Lastly, every social media user should understand that content shared online or over phone apps never truly “disappears,” even when you think it’s been deleted.
When it comes to online safety, children need parents to be involved! Don’t hesitate to put limits on your child’s internet use, check their phones and devices randomly and frequently, learn about the apps they use, and question them about the people they talk to online. Review your child’s posts and encourage them to ask for guidance before posting anything online. Most importantly, be someone they can come to when they encounter questionable situations online — then contact the FBI if you believe your child is a victim of sextortion or any other crime.
FBI agents help child victims every day in Oklahoma, but we know there are other victims who never reach out to us. We want to protect our community, educate families about threats online, and bring criminals to justice.
Connor Hagan is the public affairs officer temporarily assigned to the FBI Oklahoma City Field Office. Reach out to the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI with tips or information about potential federal crimes.