Deadly “sextortion” scam driving teen boys to suicide

Almost every day, a scam email lands in my spam folder that is some derivative of the following: “I have hacked your computer’s camera and recorded you while you were watching porn. If you do not send me X amount of dollars, I will send the video to all of the email addresses on your contact list.” Because I know it’s a scam and I don’t watch porn, it’s easy for me to simply delete the emails. But because I know how many people do struggle with porn – a majority of teen boys, even in Christian communities – I’ve often wondered how many people panic when they receive these emails, and how many end up sending money. 

Over the past few years, an even more insidious version of this scam has surfaced, known colloquially as “sextortion” scams. There are several versions of it. One version, reported on in January by Global News, detailed a “catfishing” operation in Saskatchewan in which online predators pose as teen girls, persuade boys to send compromising photos, and then threaten to release them publicly unless they are paid. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the province said they received dozens of instances of this sextortion taking place among children. 

ABC News reported on a similar incident – this one with tragic results – in May. Jordan DeMay, a 17-year-old from Marquette, Michigan, committed suicide after three Nigerian men posed as a female, “coerced” him into sending a nude photo of himself, and then demanded $1,000 in exchange for not making it public. The teen told his tormenters that he was going to kill himself; their response, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Mark Totten, was “enjoy your miserable life.” The scam happened via Instagram, and his parents didn’t know about it until he was dead.  

Later that same month, CNN reported on 17-year-old Gavin Guffey of Rock Hill, South Carolina, who was also blackmailed by scammers who threatened to make images public. Early in the morning of July 27, 2022, Guffey sent a heart to his younger brother and friends, headed into the bathroom, and killed himself. His father heard the shot. Heartbroken and searching for a reason behind the suicide, the family found the sextortion scam. They are now fighting to raise awareness.  

These deadly scams are now becoming one of the most common. The U.S. Department of Justice warned in late 2022 that a “staggering” sextortion scam had ensnared over 3,000 teen boys and minors, most originating on the Ivory Coast, leading to at least a dozen suicides that year. Most victims are extorted for thousands of dollars, with millions being successfully procured by the scammers. Federal law enforcement has since launched a “sextortion awareness campaign” in schools to warn students. The Australian Federal Police is also warning of a similar surge in sextortion scams in that country – at least 100 a month in 2022 – many of which feature messages such as: “I will send this picture to your friends unless you pay me $500. Answer me.” 

On October 2, The Washington Post published a longform report on the rise of sextortion scams titled “‘IDK what to do’: Thousands of teen boys are being extorted in sexting scams”: 

NCMEC, which serves as a clearinghouse for records of abuse, received more than 10,000 tips of financial sextortion of minors, primarily boys, in 2022 from the public as well as from electronic service providers, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which are required by law to report cases. By the end of July 2023, NCMEC had already received more than 12,500 reports, which is routed to law enforcement, with more continuing to pour in. Given the multiple reporting sources, it’s possible that some of those reports were duplicates, Coffren said, but the increasing number of cases is troubling.

The Post report includes many stories of teen boys who have fallen prey to the scam, including instances in which the scammer followed through with the threat and released the images and gut-wrenching accounts of suicides and suicide attempts in response. The vast majority of these scams appear to unfold on Instagram. The report indicated that in addition to the U.S. and Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have also released warnings about sextortion scams and their ramifications.  

Christian parents should not be naïve: sexting is happening in our communities, as well. I’ve spoken to thousands of students this year, and sexting is taking place in every Christian school I’ve spoken at (on the subject of pornography). Many of the parents in the Post article noted their regret at giving their children phones, without which these scams could not have happened.  

Thus, a few takeaways from this story: minors should not have access to social media. These scams are just another of many reasons that Instagram and Snapchat are profoundly poisonous to the mental health and well-being of young people. Smartphones – that is, minors having unregulated, unfiltered, constant access to the Internet – is very dangerous. Not only is porn addiction the norm among young people, but so is social media and, increasingly in some circles, sexting. 

I have been told by many students that most people get asked at some point, and that many decide to send pictures under pressure. Even though most are not extorted, most photos are shared with others at some point. 

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