Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and several federal law enforcement agencies have issued a public safety alert about “an alarming increase” in the online exploitation of children and teens.

Referred to as “sextortion,” derived from “sex” and “extortion,” this crime occurs when a victim, “often a child, is threatened or blackmailed, usually online, by a person demanding sexual content (photos/videos) or money from the child against his or her will,” the Department of Justice explains.

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Last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in partnership with Homeland Security Investigations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), issued a public safety alert about “the alarming increase” in cases of sextortion.

On Tuesday, Moody issued a public safety alert urging parents and guardians to “please talk to your children about this disturbing crime and ensure they know not to take or send explicit images to anyone. Keep an open dialog with your children and urge them to tell you if they are ever asked to exchange inappropriate content.”

Roughly 3,000 minors in the U.S. were victims of sextortion last year, the DOJ reports.

Sextortion occurs “when a child or teen shares an image with someone they thought they knew or trusted, but the individual has gained the child’s trust through deceit, coercion, or deception (and sometimes, predators falsely claim that they have obtained photos that the child may have shared with someone else). Once predators acquire the images, they threaten to release the compromising material unless the victim sends additional images, money, or gift cards,” the DOJ explains.

Oftentimes, predators demand payment through various apps, but after they receive the money, they release the images.

“The shame, fear, and confusion that victims experience when they are caught in this cycle often prevent them from asking for help or reporting the abuse,” the DOJ states.

Sextortion schemes occur online using social media, gaming sites, or video chat applications. Predators are increasingly creating fake female accounts, DOJ explains, to target adolescent boys between 14- and 17 years old, although it’s uncovered victims as young as 10.

The DOJ has published resources to help Americans recognize online exploitation and sextortion and report it.

Florida’s 2022 Human Trafficking Summit also hosted a session on sextortion that provides additional information.

During the Summit, the Florida Department of Children and Families encouraged parents and guardians to consider taking several precautionary measures. They include being aware of their children’s online activity; requiring them to make their social media accounts private; preventing them from altering or using a fake birth date to access sites online; explaining that online profiles of others may be fake, among others.

Last year, Moody’s office released an Online Safety Toolkit to help educate parents and guardians about how human traffickers use the internet. It also includes tips on creating effective online safety plans for safe internet use.

Parents who think a potential predator may target their children are encouraged to call the NCMEC CyberTipline (1-800-843-5678) and file a report with their local FBI field office (1-800-CALL-FBI; Tips.FBI.gov).

The NCMEC reminds parents, “Remember, the predator is to blame, not your child or you.”

It also recommends that victims “Get help before deciding whether to pay money or comply with the predator. Cooperating or paying rarely stops the blackmail and continued harassment.”

They are also encouraged to report an alleged predator’s account and block it. But they’re instructed not to delete their profile or message information that can be used by law enforcement.

The NCMEC also helps victims remove explicit images from the internet.

It also encourages using tools that are helpful with reporting sextortion, including org/IsYourExplicitContentOutThere and cybertipline.org.

Children and youth who feel unsafe telling adults about falling prey to sextortion schemes are encouraged to contact NCMEC directly (gethelp@ncmec.org; 1-800-THE-LOST).

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