SHERIDAN —A crime the Federal Bureau of Investigation refers to as ‘sextortion’ has gained a foothold online and is affecting Wyoming youth in growing numbers.

Chris McDonald, special agent and commander of the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force, describes sextortion as yet another avenue for predators online to take advantage of minors.

“Sextortion is really another form of online extortion,” McDonald said. “That’s where a suspect coerces a child into providing graphic or nude sexual images or videos and then after those are provided, the suspect extorts the victim for money or sex acts or more videos or more files.”

McDonald said ICAC has seen an uptick in sextortion cases over the past year occurring on a wide range of social media platforms, and young boys have increasingly been the targets of this crime.

“From the spring of 2022 until the present, we just saw a really large increase and those biggest reporters are really Instagram and Facebook. We also have a lot of them on Snapchat,” McDonald said. “Our biggest victim pool increase that we have seen at ICAC has been young boys, underage boys. That seems to be the victim of choice currently, not to say that girls aren’t being sextorted because they actually are, but there’s definitely a noted spike in male victims of this crime.”

McDonald noted several cases have involved minors receiving friend requests from strangers on Snapchat and other social media platforms through ‘quick add,’ a feature that typically allows users to send friend requests to people they may know such as cell phone contacts or friends of friends.

“What we try to tell kids, and adults for that matter, is if you don’t actually know that person, then I wouldn’t accept a friend request from them,” McDonald said. “That is one way that contact is made and we just talk to kids so often that are just reaching out to speak with anyone that speaks with them, or anyone that accepts a friend request or submits a friend request, and it’s just so dangerous. It’s just trying to get that word out there that we really should know who we’re talking to.”

Terri Markham, executive director of Uprising, a local organization aiming to confront human trafficking, expanded on the ways online predators make contact with minors in this particular crime.

“One of the current trends with the boys is, specifically, bad actors reaching out to them through gaming platforms, like online gaming,” Markham said. “They’ll pretend to be a young person, like a young girl or someone who’s interested in them and they’ll ask them to send nude photos to them, specifically with their face in it. The second they have that, it just flips and then they usually are trying to extort them for one of two reasons.

“They’re either saying, ‘OK, now you have to send me $1,000 or I’m going to send this to your parents and everyone on your friends list,’ or they’re saying ‘Now you have to send me a picture every single day or I’m going to send this to your parents and your friends list,’” Markham continued.

Uprising has presented at local schools in an effort to educate and combat the prevalence of sextortion. Markham said the number of students already affected by sextortion in some way was staggering.

“The first time we talked about sextortion with a middle school class was at Sheridan Junior High… and that very first class that we talked to had 30 students. Three of them that day came up to us and disclosed that they were experiencing sextortion,” Markham said. “That’s when we were like, ‘Whoa, this is a bigger problem than we realized.’”

Markham added perpetrators of sextortion are not only seeking explicit content of children, identified by Uprising staff as child sexual abuse material, for their own use. Many of these predators are sharing material among other predators.

“CSAM is a currency of its own. For a lot of these perpetrators, that’s why they get that. It is like money,” Markham said. “They can make so much money or they can use that to trade for the specific type of victim that they’re looking for and it’s just a very perverse, disgusting world that I wouldn’t wish anyone in the world to have to be thinking about all day as part of their job.”

McDonald echoed Markham, adding the rampant sharing of CSAM obtained through sextortion or other means makes it that much harder for law enforcement to track down the material and have it removed. 

McDonald also said many perpetrators of sextortion are based overseas, further complicating the process of investigation and prosecution.

“We see a lot [of suspects] from West Africa, like the Ivory Coast or Nigeria,” McDonald said. “Our federal partners, both FBI and Homeland Security, work pretty hard with our overseas law enforcement partners to help try to investigate and prosecute those crimes at their source. Unfortunately, how crimes are investigated over in different countries is not the same as it’s done in the United States, so it absolutely makes it hard to prosecute a case in that regard.”

Another barrier in working against sextortion, Markham said, is the hesitance of victims to come forward or tell a trusted adult. Markham said the formula of sextortion is specifically designed to take advantage of this factor.

“[Online predators are] absolutely banking on the fact that this involves nude images and youth sending those and a youth is going to be scared to turn that in because they’re going to be scared to get in trouble,” Markham continued. “They’re going to be embarrassed. They’re not going to want anyone else to see that, so this whole scheme is basically set up on the secrecy that surrounds that.”

McDonald elaborated on some of the language a suspect might use to add fuel to the fire of shame when conversing with a minor victim.

“The suspect specifically manipulates their victim so that the victim feels like it’s their fault, or they were complicit, or no one will believe them, or that they’ll be in trouble and that’s nothing further from the truth,” McDonald said. “The only way we can help is if we know. We talk a lot about talking to a trusted adult and we always say a trusted adult doesn’t have to be the police right away. It’s whoever is a trusted adult in their life.”

McDonald stressed that minor victims coming forward about their experience with sextortion are not going to get in trouble, a common fear among those affected by this crime.

“We view these cases from a victim-centric perspective… We are in no way looking to get kids in trouble for being victims of sextortion by adults,” McDonald said. “We have to review all these chats sometimes and you see that a lot with suspects saying, ‘Well, you sent child pornography, you’re in as big of trouble as I am,’ which could not be further from the truth.”

Victimization by sextortion, Markham said, is preventable. A large part of combatting this crime is normalizing conversation surrounding the topic and increasing awareness among youth and adults.

“The No. 1 thing with this is communication. We as adults — not just the parents but educators and people who have other roles in youth lives — just need to be having these conversations,” Markham said. “This is part of normal life for [kids] now with this technology so it needs to be part of normal conversations that we’re having and not a one-time sex talk. Ongoing checking in with your kids, asking them how they’re doing, talking to them about, ‘Do you know anyone who’s experienced this?’ Do they know that there’s places to get help?”

McDonald added an effective way to connect with children and teens about the threat of sextortion is to remind them that sending explicit content removes their control over what might happen with the content.

“The easy way [to prevent sextortion] is if you’re not taking or sharing images, right? That’s one way to protect yourself for sure,” McDonald said. “As soon as you hit send, you’re no longer in control of your images and really you’re no longer in control of your own body… We want to maintain control of our own images and our own person. It takes awareness and protecting ourselves, thinking before we send and knowing who we’re talking to.

“I try to let kids know — and parents too — that as good as kids are with technology and the internet and everything else, far better than I am, they just don’t have the tools in their toolbox to deal with these kinds of situations or people,” McDonald continued. “I just try to get folks comfortable enough to deal with someone that does have the tools to help and that’s us.”

In honor of January being National Human Trafficking Prevention and Awareness Month, Uprising is partnering with Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s Human Trafficking Task Force, the Wyoming Division of Victim Services, the Wyoming U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICAC to bring a film entitled ‘Sextortion: the Hidden Pandemic’ to Wyoming.

“Crimes like this, they technically are trafficking… they would become trafficking if that person turns around and sells or releases [CSAM], which is what they are doing with that content once they get it. Every time that photo is shared, we consider that as kids being re-trafficked and re-trafficked. This is a form of trafficking,” Markham said.

Markham said the organizations will be hosting a series of community screenings of the film across the state, complete with panel discussions. 

Screenings will be held in Cheyenne Jan. 18 and Laramie Jan. 19, followed by a Feb. 1 screening in Cody and a Feb. 2 screening in Sheridan.

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