An Instagram Sextortionist Tricked 30 Boys Into Sharing Intimate Photos, FBI Says. One Took His Own Life
The practice of sextortion is where victims are targeted with explicit imagery and blackmailed. It’s a growing problem in America.
FBI is working to expose a notorious Instagram extortionist. He posed as Californian women and tricked 30 teens into sending nude pictures. Then, they were told that the photos would be shared with family and friends only if they pay a set amount. According to an unreported court filing, an 18 year old Ventura County boy gave $1,500 worth of Apple gift cards to the blackmailer. He then took his own life. SME.
Since May last year, the scammer has been running the sextortion campaigns. Their identity is unknown. They’ve been particularly aggressive in pursuing payment from victims, in one case threatening violence against a 19-year-old and his family. The scammer also hacked into at least two victims’ Instagram accounts, telling them to hand over passwords to stop their photos from being shared, according to the FBI. They claimed that they attempted to retrieve their accounts but failed. They were both unavailable for verification by SME.
So far, law enforcement is unable to find the culprit of the fraud. However, Google Voice messages were returned by search warrants that suggested there could be at least two more victims. The Justice Department as well as the Ventura County Police declined to comment. An inquiry to the FBI for comment was unanswered.
With more people working from home in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and spending more time online as a result, the FBI has documented what it describes as a “huge increase” in reports of sextortion. The agency’s Atlanta office, for example, has received 50 such reports so far in 2022—more than double the full-year total for 2021. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which had 12,070 reported of sextortion and online enticement, saw 44,155 reports in 2021. Elsewhere, Cybertip.ca, Canada’s national tip line for child exploitation, told SMEIt had already opened 500 cases of sextortion claims in the past month.
“It’s a pandemic,” says John Pizzuro, a former 25-year veteran investigator of child abuse crimes with the New Jersey State Police. “We can’t even keep up with the amount of cases . . . New Jersey’s increase has been 400% over the last four years, and that goes across the U.S. and across the world.”
Teenage boys are another notable target group in the rise and fall of sextortion. Canadian Center for Child Protection stated that 92% of cases where victims were known to be male, in which the gender was unknown, it had investigated. According to the FBI, most cases that it investigated involved male victims between 14 and 17 years old.
This is a significant shift in target. NCMEC data from six years ago showed that 78% of all sextortion cases between 2013-2016 involved women children and 15% involved men.
While the financial cost of sextortion isn’t astronomical compared to other cybercrimes—standing at $13.6 million from 18,000 cases reported to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center in 2021, compared to $1 billion for romance scams—this form of online extortion is one that has repeatedly proven deadly.
Ventura County’s death was second in three months to be linked with sextortion. A cybercriminal tricked him to share an intimate photograph that he blackmailed him with. In February, a San Jose teenager took his life. CNN reported that the FBI still is trying to locate the criminal in that case. A 17-year old man committed suicide in Manitoba, Canada in February after being blackmailed about nude photographs.
Attention is now turning to tech giants and what they’re doing to protect its young users. According to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, most sextortion cases that it examined in July involved Snapchat and Instagram (42% and 38% each). As an example of what the Canadian organization called an Instagram failing, it identified at least 19 unique accounts used to sextort victims all using the same profile picture, “something we would expect their systems to intercept,” says Lianna McDonald, the nonprofit’s executive director. Meta didn’t reply to my request for further information.
Instagram’s parent company, Meta, and Snapchat declined to comment on the rise in sextortion scams on their platforms. Meta pointed to its support of TopNCII.org, which helps people keep tabs on where their photos are shared, while Snapchat said it had various measures to stop teens chatting with people they didn’t know.
McDonald’s believes that regulations will be necessary to make tech companies do more. “Many network and platform design changes could be made to tackle these issues, but our experience has been that serious change won’t happen without regulatory intervention,” she says. “Why? Because changing some of the fundamental design issues that create favorable conditions for predation on many social media platforms would likely undermine aspects of their current business models.”
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (8255) if you think about suicide or a loved one.