March 4, 2024
March 4, 2024
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Expert warns of growing social media ‘sextortion’ schemes targeting boys

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

A former Snapchat employee says “sextortion” schemes, which are becoming increasingly common on social media platforms, can have a “severe” impact on minors using those apps.

The FBI defines sextortion as a “serious crime” in which perpetrators threaten to expose a victim’s sensitive or private information — including nude photos — in exchange for money or more sexually explicit material.

“The potential harm, especially as it relates to minors, is severe,” the former employee, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to protect his career, said. ” … We’ve seen thousands of reports this year. But … the ratio of reported to not reported is pretty high. Probably less than 5% of this is actually reported.”

The issue began popping up more frequently on Snapchat beginning in 2021, he said.

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“It’s not really based around sexual content. It’s fraud. It’s basically financially motivated,” he explained. 

A bad actor posing as someone else online — particularly as a young, beautiful woman from the United States or Western Europe — will send messages or friend requests to numerous potential targets and then strike up conversation. Once the perpetrator establishes trust with a victim, they convince that victim to share nude images.

Once the images are sent, the perpetrator will screenshot them. Snapchat alerts users when other users take screenshots of their messages or photos, but bad actors use an app or another phone to capture the nude image so they don’t get caught.

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Then, perpetrators send the image back to the victim and threaten to expose it if they do not send money. Some bad actors will use “templates” that place the nude image next to a screenshot of the victim’s friend lists on Instagram or other social media apps. 

“[A] lot of people’s Instagram friends lists are public, so [bad actors will] go to Instagram, screenshot a giant list of the victim’s friends, and then once they get the nude image, they screenshot it, shrink it down, and then paste it in an image alongside all of the friend lists and say, ‘I’ll send this nude image of you to all of these users on Instagram if you don’t send me this money,” the former employee explained.

“It gets much worse than that, though,” he added.

In some cases, perpetrators will paste the victim’s nude image on a fake “FBI Most Wanted” poster that lists the victim’s name and nude image under a description for a wanted child rapist or murderer, the former employee explained.

Such abuse has a particularly strong impact on victims between the ages of 14 and 16 who do not know what to do or where to turn for help when they do not want their parents or friends to know they shared nude images with a stranger.

Sextortion sometimes results in suicide or self-harm, particularly among teenagers.

Most perpetrators the employee witnessed on Snapchat targeted young men for money, and most were operating these scams out of Nigeria

The former employee compared sextortion to a similar scam that erupted some 20 years ago when bad actors posing as Nigerian “princes” would message strangers asking for money online — a phenomenon that has since turned into a meme poking fun at an older generation who fell for such obvious fraud.

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“This is almost 100% of this is from Nigerian users.”

The victims are “always young men,” he added later. 

“They’re targeting young men because young men are the most likely to fall for this type of scheme,” the former employee explained. “Also, young men are not used to being victims being targeted like this.”

A Snap spokesperson told Fox News Digital in a statement that the “sexual exploitation of any Snapchatter – especially a teen – is horrific, illegal” and against the companies policies.

“Financial sextortion is a growing online threat and we have been ramping up our tools for combating it, including strengthening our detection technologies. We are continuing to invest in new protections for both teens and parents, and are developing educational resources to help raise awareness about these growing online harms,” the spokesperson said.

Targeting young women has a “dramatically lower” success rate for perpetrators because many women are taught to be cautious when talking to strangers online.

“They’re so easily convinced to do something like this,” the former employee said.

On the other hand, girls more frequently become victims of sextortion schemes in which perpetrators demand more sexually explicit content from victims. In other words, instead of threatening to expose victims’ nude images for money, they threaten to expose them in exhange for more nude photos. 

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These bad actors targeting girls often come from within the United States, and many know the victims personally, the former Snapchat employee said. 

A young woman who spoke with Fox News on the condition of anonymity said she recently became the victim of a different kind of romance/sextortion scam. Last year, she began speaking with a man who had a generic name — “George Anthony” — on Instagram, who, as far as she could tell, was real. She would video-chat with him, and his face matched his photos on Instagram. 

They developed a relationship through their messages on Instagram and WhatsApp. He conceived a sob story and asked her to send him money. She sent “thousands” of dollars before she finally realized he was never going to stop asking for more, so she cut off contact and blocked him.

“The crazy thing is, I didn’t even realize what had happened to me until earlier this year. I wasn’t aware of these romance scams situations that happen. Apparently, it’s on the rise now,” she said.

About a year after they began communicating, George Anthony reached out to the victim’s friend and shared a nude photo the victim had shared with him, asking for the friend to put him back in touch with the victim or else he would share her image elsewhere.

“I have more people I can show that [to] even guys,” he wrote to the victim’s friend in a screenshot shared with Fox News Digital, adding, “So just tell her to fix things up with me.”

When Fox News Digital reached out to the user and asked if he scammed the victim into giving him money and threatened to share her photo, he wrote, “I did not,” adding, “[S]he is the love of my life.”

He sent follow requests to the victim’s brother and sister, but the victim told her siblings not to accept. 

In one example of the severe impact sextortion has on children and teens, a 17-year-old Michigan boy named Jordan DeMay took his own life after becoming a sextortion victim via Instagram. 

The main suspect in his death, 22-year-old Samuel Ogoshi, is one of three men from Lagos arrested earlier this month for allegedly hacking Instagram accounts and sexually extorting, or “sextorting,” more than 100 young men online, including DeMay. Ogoshi allegedly posed as a young woman under the username “dani.robertts.” 

The account was real but had been hacked and sold to Ogoshi, who used the profile to coerce young men into sending explicit photos of themselves, authorities said. He allegedly used the photos as leverage for money, according to the FBI.

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DeMay believed he sent a nude image to Ogoshi, posing as dani.robertts, who then threatened to send the image to DeMay’s friends and family if DeMay did not send money. When DeMay could not send any more money, he shot himself.

In another example, South Carolina Republican state Rep. Brandon Guffey’s 17-year-old son also died by suicide after becoming a sextortion victim. 

Similarly, a perpetrator posing as a young woman reached out to Gavin Guffey on Instagram, requested nude images then threatened to expose them if he did not send money. When Guffey could not send any more money, he, too, shot himself.

Part of the issue in capturing these bad actors, the former Snapchat employee said, is the fact that Nigerian law enforcement lacks the resources to follow up complaints from U.S. tech companies and the FBI.

“We would aggressively report [sextortion cases] to U.S. authorities, to the FBI, and we would expect to see like some pretty severe consequences,” he said. “But it’s almost not worth reporting. The platforms do it for legal obligations, and also because … people like me and everybody I worked with who are chasing this stuff down are pissed off about it and want to go through all the steps, so that if, by some miracle, Nigerian authorities do get their hands on it, they can actually do something. “

He continued: “But, it’s pretty much understood that when we report this stuff, it’s not going anywhere. The FBI didn’t have enough leverage with Nigerian authorities. Nigerian authorities don’t have enough resources to do it, anyway.”

The former Snapchat employee told Fox News Digital that Snapchat and other social media apps have moderation technology in place to prevent repeat offenders from exploiting more victims. 

For example, they can pick up on “indicators of bad behavior” that may result in banning an account, such as “a Nigerian user who signed up a new account and then friend requests 10,000 people in a 24 hour period,” the employee said.

He added, however, that he thinks Snapchat and other companies should get to the forefront of sextortion and make the growing issue known to the public before the crime harms more teenagers like DeMay and Guffey.

“Just start up some sort of public campaign and say, hey, if somebody you don’t know asks for nude image, this is what sextortion is,” he said. “These are the signs of it. And please be aware of it.”

The Snap spokesperson said the social media app is creating an education, in-app series called Safety Snapshot, will will cover a range of issues including sextortion, sexting and the consequences of creating and sharing nude photos on the platform, as well as child online grooming and trafficking. 

The former Snapchat employee believes instances of sextortion are happening “billions of times a year” on social platforms.

“Obviously, none of the technology companies want to come out and say, ‘Hey … underage male users are being exploited on our platform for a ton of different reasons. Facebook and Twitter and, you know, Tumblr … [they] don’t want to come out and say that,” he said. “But that would immediately reduce the amount of exposure that young victims have to this.”

The former employee’s own advice to victims of sextortion is to understand that once a victim gives money to a perpetrator, the threats will not stop.

“Once a nude image is shared and this blackmail starts, it doesn’t stop until you run out of money or you decide you can no longer participate in this,” he said. “They ask for $100 or $1,000, $10,000 — and I’ve seen all of that paid before.”

Children should first tell their parents when they fall victim to a sextortion scheme. Next, victims should block bad actors and report instances of the crime to local law enforcement. 

Minors can report sextortion to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which can help take down explicit photos posted online.

Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, previously told Fox News Digital in a statement that the company wants “teens to have safe, positive experiences online, and we work to help prevent and stop criminals from targeting them with sextortion schemes.”

“This includes cooperating with law enforcement to help protect vulnerable teens from these horrific crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice. In addition to the work we do to protect teens from sextortion, we also helped found NCMEC’s TakeItDown, which allows teens to stop the spread of their intimate images online,” Davis said.

The FBI encourages anyone who believes they are a victim of sextortion, or knows someone who may be, to contact their local FBI office or toll-free at 1-800-CALL-FBI.

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