The FBI is warning families about the rise of online “sextortion,” as criminal rings are beginning to use artificial intelligence (AI) to blackmail teenage victims with faked sexually explicit images.
Financial sextortion often involves an offender coercing a minor to send sexual photos or videos of themselves, then threatening to release that content unless they pay up.
“Offenders threaten to release that compromising material unless they receive payment, which is often requested in gift cards, mobile payment services, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency,” the FBI’s Little Rock, Arkansas, field office said in a January 25 press release. “These offenders are motivated by financial gain, not necessarily just sexual gratification.”
While victims tend to be teenage boys, the bureau asserts that “any child can become a victim.”
The offenders are usually part of criminal rings located outside of the U.S., primarily in West African and Southeast Asian countries.
From October 2021 to March 2023, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations received more than 13,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors across the country, which led to at least 20 victim suicides.
In the six months between October 2022 and March 2023, the FBI observed “at least” a 20 percent increase in reports involving minor victims compared to the same period the previous year.
Now, the FBI’s Charlotte, North Carolina, field office is sounding the alarm on AI sextortion:
Recently, some of the criminals have also used artificial intelligence to manipulate photos from a victim’s social media account into sexually themed images, then share them on social media, public forums, or pornographic websites.
Paying the criminals doesn’t make the scheme stop. They’ll continue to ask for more money.
The FBI recommends protecting yourself on social media or gaming platforms in the following ways:
Be wary of anyone who attempts to connect to you online that you haven’t met in person. Block or ignore messages from strangers.
Be aware people pretend to be anyone online. Videos and photos aren’t proof that a person is who they claim to be.
Be suspicious if someone you connect with asks you to start communicating on a different platform.
Encourage children to report suspicious behavior to a trusted adult.
A West African sextortion group known as the “Yahoo Boys” has contributed to driving the reports of online sextortion up, Breitbart News reported in January.
The cybercriminals have a prominent presence on social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Wizz, according to a recent study from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI).
The institute found that the Yahoo Boys have posted training videos and guides on TikTok, Scribd, and YouTube to help others run financial sextortion scams on social media platforms.
The NCRI also noted that such material published on various platforms had garnered more than half a million views.
“The exploitation of children is a reprehensible crime and will not be tolerated by the FBI,” said Special Agent in Charge Alicia Corder of the FBI’s Little Rock Field Office. “Our office will continue to work with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to protect Arkansas children from sextortion and hold these predators accountable.”