In 2022, law enforcement received 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims, primarily boys, and more than a dozen suicides. Those reported to law enforcement are the tip of the iceberg. A large percentage of schemes originate outside of the United States, and its very difficult to track perpetrators. Just ask Brandon Guffey, whose son Gavin killed himself in a panic when he fell victim to sextortion.
Gavin sent his younger brother and friends a cryptic message in the predawn hours of July 27, 2022, using a heart shaped symbol of love just before he shot himself. For weeks, his grieving family searched for signs of something they had missed. Then, they found out that a scammer masquerading as a teenaged girl had convinced Gavin to send nude photos of himself. Once he did, they told him he had to pay, or they would publicize them. Emptying his bank account he sent them $25 via Venmo – but it was not enough. He pleaded for more time, begging them not to send the images out. In his teenaged brain, it was a catastrophic threat. His father, Brandon, was running for the State House in South Carolina.
In the weeks after Gavin’s funeral, his younger brother was bombarded with messages from the scammers, demanding money or they would still release Gavin’s photos. They taunted his father with messages telling him Gavin begged for his life.
Nearly one year later, no arrests have been made. The legislature in South Carolina is set to pass “Gavin’s Law.” Scammers extorting a minor will face up to 5 years in prison. If they can be found, that is.
Given the horrific impact on teens and their families, 5 years in prison does not seem like justice to me. I doubt it will serve as a significant deterrent. And it certainly won’t bring back Gavin or the other teens who have taken their own lives rather than have nude images of themselves released.
The best defense: Talk to the teens in your life about sextortion!
Be sure they understand what it is, and how easily it can happen.
Remind them that people online can pretend to be whoever they want, and photos and videos are never proof of identity.
Tell them to be highly selective about sharing any personal information and to never share intimate images online. One a scammer has the first image; they have all the leverage they need to obtain additional ones.
Emphasize that sextortion isn’t a crime that’s exclusively perpetrated by strangers, but also at time by partners/ex-partners.
Assure them that if they do get scammed to come to you right away and they will not be in trouble (and mean that.) Help them understand they were a victim of crime, and even if they made a mistake in sending a photo, they are not responsible for the extortion.
Make it clear you are open to discussing – without shame or punishment – any question or concern they have about sexuality.
Kenneth Polite, Jr. the Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, commented: “The protection of children is society’s most sacred duty. It calls on each of us to do everything we can to keep kids from harm."
Please contribute to our #NeverGiveUp campaign to expand our prevention work and protect more children from harm. We agree that preventing sextortion and other sexual abuse is a sacred duty. We hope you do, too.
To report suspected sextortion, call the nearest FBI field office or 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). To make a CyberTipline Report with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), visit report.cybertip.org.
For additional information and resources, access the FBI’s Website