FBI Warns of Sexual Extortion's Tragic Toll

Young male victims sometimes only see shame, experts say, and can't find a way out
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted May 22, 2022 12:20 PM CDT
'Sextortion' Can Cost Teenagers' Lives, FBI Warns
Stock photo   (Getty Images/fongfong2)

The FBI is increasing its efforts to warn parents and teenagers about sexual extortion scams that are leaving young people consumed by shame and, in some cases, pushed to commit suicide. The crime is not rare: Officials say more than 18,000 complaints related to what they call sextortion were made last year, CNN reports, and they say many more cases aren't reported. "The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles that the victims have to overcome," an agent said. The FBI puts the economic cost at more than $13 million. There's also a toll that can't be measured.

Pauline Stuart last saw her son at 10 one night in their San Jose home, when she told him good night. Ryan Last, 17, was contacted that night by someone pretending to be a girl who, as their conversation became sexual, sent him a nude photo and asked him to send one back. The person then told him to pay $5,000 or the photo would be made public and sent to Ryan's family and friends. When he said he couldn't pay that much, the price fell to $150, which Ryan paid from his college savings. But his mother said, "They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him." By 2am, he'd killed himself. He left a note saying he was embarrassed.

Many of the cybercriminals work out of Africa and Southeast Asia, the FBI says, and the campaign to stop them has become global. Male teenagers are especially vulnerable, experts say, because their brains are still developing. In the moment, they sometimes can't see a way past the shame, per CNN. The FBI, health experts, and Ryan's mother implore parents to talk to their children about what's happening in their online lives—asking if they're being contacted by people they don't know or are being pressured to provide photos or information. Pauline Stuart said she wants to honor Ryan's memory by helping other families avoid her pain. "His note showed he was absolutely terrified," she said. "No child should have to be that scared." (More sextortion stories.)

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