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Popular social media apps fuel a disturbing surge in child sextortion

There has been a 1,000% increase in incidents over the past 18 months, driven by criminals sharing training materials on YouTube and TikTok.
Popular social media apps fuel a disturbing surge in child sextortion
Posted at 1:02 PM, Jan 30, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-01 13:30:10-05

Financial sextortion, a cybercrime involving the obtaining of sexually explicit content of minors, has become the fastest-growing type of crime in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation warned parents and teachers about this growing threat that is affecting mostly male teens.

The FBI explains that sextortion involves coercing minors to create sexually explicit content, after which the offenders then threaten to publicize the compromising material unless the victim provides more explicit content for their own personal pleasure. With financially motivated sextortion, the criminals focus on extortion for monetary gain rather than solely sexual satisfaction.

Now, a new study by the Network Contagion Research Institute shares data that links the surge in financial sextortion against minors to the West African cybercriminal group known as the Yahoo Boys, who create fake social media accounts on popular platforms and use them to coerce their victims.

The study says the group is primarily targeting English-speaking teenage boys aged 14-17 by creating fake accounts on Instagram, Snapchat, and Wizz, and is also sharing sextortion "instructional videos and scripts” on TikTok, YouTube, and Scribd to encourage other criminals to participate in financial sextortion.

Researchers are attributing a 1,000% increase in incidents over the past 18 months to the effectiveness of the training materials these criminals are posting on these platforms. 

"The sextortion criminals are 'bombing' high schools, youth sports teams, and universities with fake accounts, using advanced social engineering tactics to coerce their victims into a compromising situation," the study reads. 

According to the study, Instagram is the most popular app for these criminals to use to find and target victims, as the platform's design allows for a more accessible interaction. The second-most used app is Snapchat, as it's designed to create "a false sense of security" to trick users into thinking their photos won't be saved or screenshotted.

Wizz, which is similar to a dating app and is described in the Apple Store as a "safe space where you can let loose and meet new friends from all over the world," is the third-most used app for these criminals, and it's quickly growing.

The report says that out of 500 English-speaking Wizz users, 40% faced sextortion, and 77% of them were under 18 years old.

"We have zero tolerance for scams and inappropriate behavior of any kind on the platform, and we are constantly innovating to ensure Wizz is leading the industry on user safety," a spokesperson for the Wizz app told Scripps News. "We've developed a Comprehensive Safety Ecosystem, where all written and visual content is moderated, age verification is required, and where user-reported situations are immediately addressed.”

Another alarming concern associated with these crimes is their potential to drive victims to self-harm or even suicide. 

The FBI states that from October 2021 to March 2023, the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations documented over 13,000 cases of online financial sextortion of minors, affecting at least 12,600 victims, and it led to a minimum of 20 suicides. However, these numbers could be significantly underreported, as not everyone reports the crimes out of fear of judgment or retaliation.

“Mistakes can and do happen; you should be supported — not shamed — to ensure these crimes are reported, offenders are apprehended, and every effort is made to support victims as they navigate this traumatic experience," said Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan of the FBI Sacramento Field Office. “We urge victims to preserve all evidence and seek help quickly. Don’t delete any communication, even if it is embarrassing. We protect and support victims of sextortion, ensuring they are connected to the resources they need to recover.”

The FBI asks that if you, or someone you know, is a victim of these types of crimes, to contact your local law enforcement or report it to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or visiting tips.fbi.gov.

If you need to talk to someone, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 or text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. 

SEE MORE: Why young people are more prone to online scams than boomers are


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