In a search warrant, the agency warns of a “high rate” of teenage boys dying due to sextortion. Families are now being told to pay so the deceased’s nude images are not publicly released.
Sextortion scammers have become increasingly ruthless, targeting families of teenage victims who took their own lives after sending nude images to highly organized cybercriminal gangs, the FBI has warned.
The gangs have demanded that parents or siblings pay to ensure that the sexualized photos of their deceased relatives are not publicly released, according to the agency’s previously unreported research. Found in a search warrant detailing an investigation into a sextortion campaign being organized via Facebook messages, the FBI’s findings come as experts warn of an explosion in sextortion cases over the last 18 months, with increasing numbers resulting in the victim taking their own life.
The FBI said in the search warrant it had witnessed “a high rate of suicide in minor male victims of financially motivated sextortion schemes,” and that victims “committed suicide within a relatively short time period, sometimes within hours, of the sextortion occurring.”
“There is no empathy or compassion whatsoever on the side of the criminals,” veteran Homeland Security Investigations supervisory special agent Jim Cole told Forbes.
“I’m not afraid of killing someone . . . I’m afraid of getting caught.”
Historically, sextortion had largely been committed by those solely seeking sexualized imagery of minors, rather than using these images to extort victims for money, according to Cole. Now, he said, most cases he was investigating were committed by gangs in Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire who were solely after money. The FBI also said in the warrant that its caseload pointed to most sextortion crimes emanating from Nigeria. The gangs’ operations have become increasingly professionalized, with 24/7 phone farms running multiple scams across as many as 100 devices simultaneously to maximize profits, Cole said.
These criminal crews, which are also perpetrating romance scams and hacking into corporate emails to trick businesses into transferring money to criminal accounts, are also targeting people over 18 and bringing in significant sums, Cole added. He claimed that in one recent case an adult victim paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to prevent his nudes from being leaked.
But many of these crimes are focused on teenagers. Investigators also connected the criminals to the suicide of a 17-year-old South Carolina victim in July.
“Youth are a particularly vulnerable community, yet still have some financial access that’s making it lucrative for these bad actors to be able to take advantage of,” said Lauren Coffren, an executive director at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), which hosts the national tip line on crimes against minors.
The scammers are carrying out in-depth research into targets, too, mapping out their online lives, interests and contacts, Cole said, all to increase the chances of the scam’s success and its longevity. That would include obtaining information on their families, who could be targeted if the original victim died, Cole added.
Cole said investigating crimes emanating from countries that historically hadn’t taken a hard line on online scams was difficult, especially where there was a lack of adequate police funding and potential corruption. “We try to facilitate and maintain good relationships with the host nation, but there are frustrations,” Cole added.
Coffren noted that the crimes were often tied to groups based out of Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, but NCMEC had also seen some similar activity amongst criminal organizations in the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Americans are also increasingly involved, too. According to the FBI research, carried out by the agency’s Child Exploitation Operations Unit, Americans were often being recruited as “mules.” These mules are recruited often with the promise of easy money, asked to set up bank and payment app accounts into which the proceeds of sextortion are sent and disbursed, in return for a cut. Sometimes they know they are complicit in a crime, other times not. As the FBI wrote in its search warrant, the mules are useful as “they provide obfuscation for the actors because the funds received from victims are laundered through the money mules’ accounts before being passed on to the actors.”
The FBI warrant detailed a case in which Facebook tipped the agency off to messages sent between two users suspected of involvement in sextortion cases that resulted in suicides. One user’s IP address routed back to Lagos, Nigeria, while the other appeared to be based in Kentucky and was the suspected mule. (Meta had not provided comment at the time of publication.)
According to the search warrant, at one point in their Facebook chat, the alleged mule discussed the death of the 14-year-old. “The stress of losing $800 was too much,” he wrote of the boy, according to the FBI. “I didn’t even have a reaction . . . nor care.”
Investigators said the pair discussed the transfer of funds to the American’s bank accounts and payment apps. While the Nigerian user was happy for the American to run PayPal and Zelle, they were particularly determined that the mule use Cash App, an app Forbes recently reported was popular amongst sex traffickers and those perpetrating sextortion. Though the app is not available in Nigeria, it’s easy and fast to move money in and out of Cash App, something police say criminals like as it helps them launder ill-gotten gains.
Block Inc., the Jack Dorsey-run company that owns Cash App, did not comment on the FBI findings at the time of publication. Previously, it said it did not tolerate criminal activity on its platform and had numerous measures in place to monitor suspicious transactions. PayPal spokesperson Caitlin Girouard said it “has a zero tolerance policy for financial and sexual exploitation.” Meghan Fintland, a spokesperson for Early Warning Services, the company behind Zelle, disagreed entirely that sextortion gangs commonly used its payment tools as illegal activities were forbidden.
The investigation also showed how sextortion has become part of a wider, more violent criminal ecosystem. The pair discussed the possible killing of a third party, a woman allegedly tied up in the scam, who the American believed had a part in trying to frame him, according to the law enforcement account. Cops claimed the suspect wrote, “I’m not afraid of killing someone . . . I’m afraid of getting caught.”
The FBI did not provide further details into the case, either in the warrant or when asked by Forbes for comment. As no charges have been filed against the suspects, Forbes is not naming the individuals involved.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.