Sextortion crimes targeting Valley teens are spiking, FBI says

Jan 18, 2024, 4:25 AM | Updated: 5:24 am

Sextortion against minors: A rising threat for Valley families to know...

Sextortion is a nationwide issue, but the FBI's Phoenix office sees thousands of reports a year. (Pexels Photo/FBI Phoenix Photo)

(Pexels Photo/FBI Phoenix Photo)

PHOENIX — Teens in the Valley are vulnerable to online sextortion scams, which have spiked in the past few years, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sextortion scams that target teens for financial gain spiked by 20% from Oct. 2022 to March 2023, the FBI announced Tuesday. They start on social media apps that allow users to chat, set up video calls and send pictures, according to Emily Steele, an agent with the FBI’s Phoenix office.

“They will talk to a child, male or female, and what we are seeing, typically with males, the conversation is pretty quick,” Steele told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Criminals preying upon young males often pretend to be girls, Steele said. They’ll lure their victims by asking to exchange nudes right away.

Once they get photos of the boys, the blackmailing begins. Some predators ask boys to send hundreds of dollars over PayPal or via iTunes gift cards, Steele said.

“We’re seeing victims as young as six be solicited online for content,” she added. “A lot of that is being done through the messaging feature on Roblox.”

Sixty percent of Roblox’s user base is 16 or under, according to Statista.

Blackmailers often use Snapchat, Discord and Instagram to find victims, Steele said.

She also warned parents to watch out for a Snapchat feature called My Eyes Only, which is where kids often save compromising photos.

Sextortion schemes against Valley teens trending upward

The Scottsdale Police Department announced its intention to extradite a suspected child predator from Florida last Thursday.

Police accused 23-year-old Jacob Lozano of using social media and gaming platforms to coerce underage boys into engaging in sexual activity with him over webcam.

Lozano victimized three Scottsdale boys, one of whom was 11 years old, Scottsdale PD said.

The FBI refers to criminals in these cases as “sexually motivated sextortionists.” In comparison, financially motivated sextortionists are often overseas.

“You have the Philippines, you have Nigeria, a lot of those African countries, just because we tell them what’s going on, they aren’t going to arrest the bad guy,” Steele said.

“But we do have initiatives where, if I have a victim in Phoenix and I find out the sextortioner is in Nigeria, I can send that information to our headquarters,” she added. Then, HQ can try to get into contact with country officials to call attention to the issue.

Although kids across the nation are vulnerable to these scams, kids in Arizona are especially at risk.

“It’s extremely common,” Steele said. “Between local police departments and just the FBI in Phoenix, we get thousands of reports a year, so it’s a huge problem.”

The FBI received over 13,000 reports of financially motivated sextortion against minors from Oct. 2021 to March 2023. Most of the 12,600 victims were teen boys aged 14 to 17. Twenty of those victims died by suicide, the FBI said.

Tips for Arizona parents to protect their kids online

Maricela Savalas, a victim specialist with the FBI, said teens can suffer from severe depression due to shame, embarrassment and guilt. Her team connects teens with national and local resources.

“One of the things we try to do is empower people,” she said. “Let’s focus on what we can do to make you feel okay and feel safe again and feel confident.”

She said she tries to empower victims and encourage them to focus on feeling confident again.

One great resources for families is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It has comprehensive information for both teens and parents. Additionally, it can connect victims with attorneys and mentors.

“That’s the one I feel is the best. It’s easy to digest for children and also adults,” Savalas said.

Savalas and Steele advised parents to educate themselves on the programs and apps kids are using. It’s also good to know a child’s username and password if possible.

“Parents aren’t realizing what their kids are on and it’s just opening up this vast new world for criminals. That have such easy access to children,” Steele said.

There’s always hope for victims, Savalas said.

“We’re here to be helpful to them and even if it isn’t in the way of catching the person who did this to them, we want them to know they’re not alone,” she said. “We want to make sure we get them help for it.”

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Sextortion crimes targeting Valley teens are spiking, FBI says