Sexual predators are enticing teenagers and even younger children to send lewd pictures of themselves, then blackmailing them to get more — a scheme known as sextortion that has authorities increasingly worried.
While it's too early to have firm statistics on sextortion, experts on child exploitation say the number of instances is unmistakably on the rise and has coincided with the explosive popularity of social media and the age of a camera on every phone.
"We're talking about kids with a lot of privacy and a lot of technology," said Michelle Collins, vice president of the exploited children division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "And they're at a sexually curious age."
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On Monday, federal authorities revealed that a five-week crackdown had led to the capture of 255 suspected child predators — among them two men believed to be sextortionists with dozens of victims between them. One is a former high school cheerleading coach.
Experts say sextortion usually starts when a child, typically a tween or early teenager, meets a stranger online, through social media or a chat site. The predator gains the child's trust and convinces him or her to send a lewd photo.
Then the predator uses that photo to blackmail for more, threatening to send the photo to the child's parents or friends — or publish it online for the world to see — unless the child provides something racier and racier.