DOJ says over 3,000 U.S. minors were targeted in ‘sextortion’ crimes in the past year

Key Points
  • Incidents of 'sextortion' have risen dramatically in recent months, federal law enforcement officials said.
  • Victims of sextortion are minor children who are blackmailed, threatened or coerced by predators for sexual imagery, cash or gift cards.
  • The crime is most prevalent online, according to law enforcement and victims' advocacy groups.
A hooded man representing a cyber criminal.
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Federal law enforcement officers are cracking down on a scheme that aims to extort sexual imagery from children and teens after a dramatic increase in incidents over the past year.

Sexual predators are threatening, blackmailing or enticing minors through "sextortion," a portmanteau of "sex" and "extortion," in which they demand sexually explicit content or money from a child against their will, according to a Justice Department advisory released Tuesday. Victims as young as 10 years old have been targeted.

Over 3,000 minors were targeted in the U.S. over the last year, the DOJ said.

The crime is a subset of online enticement, which spiked 98% from 2019 to 2020, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The NCMEC, in partnership with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Department of Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI's Pittsburgh office, issued a public safety alert about sextortion on Tuesday.

"These criminals have become very good at luring in and extorting young children," Mike Nordwall, FBI Pittsburgh special agent in charge, said in a statement. "They try to hide behind the anonymity of the internet, but the FBI is not going to let them prey on our children." 

Sextortion is prevalent online, where predators often pose as children or teens to gain the trust of their victims before coaxing them into sharing sexual content, such as photos or videos, according to federal officials. Predators will even lie about having sexual imagery to extort victims for more content, cash or gift cards under the threat of releasing the images, according to the alert.

Sometimes, a predator shares imagery regardless of whether a victim meets payment demands, according to federal officials. The toll on the victim can lead to shame, fear, confusion and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts. Amanda Todd, the subject of a new documentary on sextortion and a target of the practice when she was only 13, died by suicide two years later.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 988.

Law enforcement officials say prevention is the best weapon against sextortion. The NCMEC provides resources for caregivers and educators on the crime. The sextortion cycle generally ends when a victim tells an adult or the offender is discovered by law enforcement.

"It is vitally important to provide parents and caregivers the information they need to prevent this crime before it happens and to help victims come forward if it does," U.S. Attorney Cindy K. Chung said in a statement. "We will continue to partner with federal, state and local law enforcement to protect children from sexual exploitation in all its despicable forms."