In our increasingly digital world, scams of all types are on the rise—and some of the most damaging target children and teens.
These “sextortion” scams—which involve perpetrators encouraging children and teens to send explicit images of themselves through coercion and blackmail—are becoming more common in Northern Virginia and elsewhere and were the subject of a recent community event hosted at Liberty High School.
Although Fauquier County has had no cases of sex trafficking or kidnapping in recent years, “sextortion” is becoming increasingly common along with other types of online scams, said Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office Detective Candyce Shaw.
“Sex trafficking is around us, but it’s not here,” Shaw said during an Oct. 25 event. “They’re definitely passing through our community.”
In “sextortion” scams, a victim—usually a child or teenager—is targeted by a perpetrator who tries to coerce them into sending explicit images of themselves under threats of publicly posting images they have already sent or for other reasons. Presenters said that perpetrators start by gaining their victims’ trust and making them feel comfortable enough to send these images.
Shaw advised that parents regularly check their children’s phones for such activity. She also said parents should reconsider giving smartphones to younger children. She also emphasized the importance of parents having open relationships with their children so that they feel they can tell parents if they are being targeted by such a scam.
She also said parents should be wary of apps like Kik, which are often used by child predators. Snapchat is another app that is often used for sextortion, since images disappear after 24 hours—although, according to Shaw, the images sent over Snapchat are reviewed by human moderators who can often catch and report child exploitation imagery. Omegle, an anonymous video chatting app, is also dangerous, according to Shaw.
“Sextortion can start on any app, any site, any gaming platform, anywhere you can connect to the internet, and you can communicate between one individual and another,” Shaw said. “Most of the time, it happens to younger children and teens, but we’ve had lots of cases recently where adults are also being sextorted. The person may claim that they already have revealing pictures of you, when they actually don’t. We see that a lot with financial exploitation.”
Shaw advised that victims of attempted blackmail should not comply and but instead should report such messages to the police. She also advised parents not to delete any of the messages, so police will have material to investigate.
Molly Thorson Andrews, from the national anti-human-trafficking organization A21, discussed “red flags” to look out for in online conversations.
“Number one, they always start by earning your trust,” Andrews said. “They can earn your trust by picking up on little things that you might have posted. For example, the trafficker goes and talks to the young child and says, ‘Oh, I love your Wolverines sweatshirt, I went to that high school, too.’ So by looking through their social media and things they might have shared, they then build a fake conversation and build a fake trust.”
Because of this, Andrews urged both kids and adults to be careful how much personal information they post online and to be wary of strangers who ask for personal information.
The Oct. 25 event was the second in a series of three hosted by FASTA, the Fauquier Anti-Sex-Trafficking Alliance, which was established by the local Rotary Club in 2008.
“Our mission is to inoculate our community through awareness and prevention, education, and supporting survivors and their families when we fail,” FASTA spokeswoman Sylvia McDevitt said. “There is a direct connection between sextortion and sex-trafficking. We were asked by our partners at the FBI and our sheriff’s department to bring this to the community’s attention, as they are seeing a dramatic and dangerous increase in sextortion cases here in our county.”
McDevitt said that she was disappointed the event drew only about 20 participants,but said she hopes the next event, set for Nov. 16 at Auburn Middle School will draw more of a crowd.
Only one child attended the Oct. 25 event, and McDevitt said that she wished there were more.
As far as what children themselves can do to combat sextortion, all three presenters emphasized the importance of being a good friend to other kids and not being afraid to tell an adult when they think a friend is a victim of sextortion or trafficking.
“We’re running the curriculum right now in schools in Michigan,” Andrews said. “And we have one student who raised her hand after taking the course and said, ‘I think my best friend is actually being trafficked.’ The teacher then contacted the police, they were able to access the young lady’s phone, and they intercepted her as she was going to meet the trafficker at the airport.”
Shaw said that the sheriff’s office wants to work with the local schools to offer a similar curriculum to Fauquier students to teach them how to spot sex trafficking and sextortion. In the meantime, she encourages interested residents to attend the Nov. 16 event.