Warn Teens About “Sextortion”

CB104393Of the many things parents might worry about concerning their teen – drugs, bad grades, moodiness, etc. – few would probably have worried about blackmail. But apparently, parents should be very worried. Last week, the U.S. government announced they had captured over 250 child predators – including teachers, clergymen, and school coaches – in a massive 5-week crackdown. Many of those suspects were “sextortionists.”

Sextortion is a new twist for online sexual predators. Predators tend to troll through social media and chat sites, trying to befriend children, typically a tween or early teenager. The predator often misrepresents himself (for example, he might say he is a teenage boy or girl). The predator takes time to develop trust. He often uses the child’s own social media to find out what they like and will say he enjoys the same things. Once they have developed a friendship, the predator then convinces the child to send him a lewd photo. Then, the predator uses that photo to blackmail the child for more photos. The predator will threaten to send the first photo to the child’s parents or friends — or publish it online for the world to see — unless the child provides something more and more explicit.

Sextortion is a new trend, so it’s too early to have firm statistics on how frequently it occurs; however, child exploitation experts say the number is clearly on the rise. Social media popularity and the increase of young children with camera phones have made this new scheme possible. Because sextortion is done online, predators are able to victimize large numbers of children at the same time.

NBC reported that, “in a case last month in Indianapolis, the FBI said a man pretended to be a young woman on Facebook, then made contact with teenage girls and offered to trade self-made photos. And an Alabama man gained the trust of girls in at least six states by posing as a new kid in town looking to make friends. Another man, Richard Finkbiner, used a site called Omegle that offers random, anonymous one-on-one chats. The teens thought they were looking at live video of the other person performing a sex act. Instead, Finkbiner was showing them recordings. When the teens performed sex acts on their own cameras in return, Finkbiner threatened to upload them to the Internet unless the teens made more recordings.”

Child exploitation experts say that young teens, who are at a sexually curious age and not able to think through all the consequences of their actions, make a misstep by sending the first photo. Then, the predators take advantage of that slip-up, and the child is immediately in over their head.

Awareness is the key to preventing this terrible tragedy. Parents should talk to their tweens and teens about online safety and how predators work. Here are some tips:

Teach children to be their own filter.

Parents must realize that filtering programs (software that blocks certain content from displaying on your computer) cannot protect a child from all dangers in cyberspace. Filtering programs are not a substitute for good judgment or critical thinking, so try to encourage youth to improve those skills. Along the same lines, we must help children to read between the lines. They need to know that although it can be fun to check out new people for friendship or romance, flattering or supportive messages may be more about manipulation than genuine friendship. While some people are nice, others act nice because they’re trying to get something from you. And, not everyone may be who they say they are. Someone can tell you that she is a 16-year-old girl from Virginia, but in fact “she” could be a 42-year-old man in California.

Insist children avoid in-person meetings and sending any photos or videos of themselves.

Explain to teens that the only way someone can physically harm you is if you’re both in the same location, so – to be 100% safe – don’t meet them in person. There is simply no way to know if someone who is nice online is who they say they are. Additionally, insist that teens refrain from sending photos or videos of themselves to anyone they have not met in person. Tell them it is wrong for anyone to pressure them for photos.

Teach children to never share personal information, and more importantly, find out your teen’s classification of personal information.

Most kids have heard from at least one adult to never share personal information online, but to them that means their address and phone number. Many children are quite willing to share their real name, age, school name and location, parents’ work places, friends’ names, etc. because they don’t actually believe that information could lead a potential predator to them. Additionally, it’s important that children’s screennames do not readily identify them as a child.

Encourage children to tell an adult when they encounter a problem online.

Children need to know that it’s safe to tell an adult when they come across any information that makes them uncomfortable. This may seem intuitive to an adult, but many times children feel uncertain if something they have seen or done is their fault. They need to know that an adult will not blame them or take away their computer and will work with them to help avoid problems in the future. Tell your child to talk to you if someone begins to blackmail them, no matter how embarrassing it may feel to admit. Remind them that you are on their side, and you want and can help them.

Final Thoughts…

John Morton, Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that their investigation revealed that online sexual abuse is pervasive and growing. The only way to prevent these terrible crimes is to make your child aware of the problems – please talk to your children today.

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