Arizona teen sextortion cases highlight public warning issued by justice department

Officials said it begins on social media, then moves to direct messaging, where the victim is tricked into sending explicit pictures, videos, and money.
Published: Dec. 19, 2022 at 7:38 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- In an unusual move, the federal government released a public safety alert Monday warning of an explosion in online sextortion cases targeting kids — namely boys. Officials said it begins on social media, then moves to direct messaging, where the victim is tricked into sending explicit pictures and videos, sometimes even money. This issue is happening to Valley families.

It was a nightmare Amanda Schneider, who lives in Tempe, found herself in last year with her then 13-year-old son. “I just kind of had that red flag, like that gut feeling there’s just something off here,” Schneider said.

Her son was on the gaming app Discord, and after getting records of his one-on-one messages with a stranger, Schneider found out somebody was grooming him for more. “It started with asking him if he had masturbated before and, if he had, to tell him about it,” Schneider said. “I just felt like somebody had actually physically come into our house even though it was online.”

Schneider’s young son is sadly not alone. The Biden administration issued a public safety warning Monday about kids, mostly boys, targeted by financial “sextortion” schemes this year involving explicit material and money transactions.

The justice department said there have been at least 3,000 kids targeted, mostly boys between the ages of 14 and 17, often by people in other countries. At least a dozen victims have died by suicide.

Katey McPherson is a youth safety advocate and posted on social media about the Phoenix FBI’s warning on this issue back in June. “Just in the Chandler area, 15 moms reached out to me and said this happened to our family; this happened to my son,” she said.

She said in some local cases, like a different one in Gilbert, it’s resulted in the worst of the worst for kids who are coerced into sending inappropriate pictures and videos, then money. “This person got $500 from him. And then sent one of the videos to his cousin, his sister, and a friend that were on his Insta,” McPherson said.

McPherson said most of these predators begin messaging teens on Instagram and Snapchat but then ask them to move over to other private messaging apps like WhatsApp. “If somebody asks you to move from one platform to another, that’s a huge red flag,” McPherson said.

As for Schneider’s son, his predator sent a picture of himself that Schneider got her hands on and figured out who he was with authorities. International police told her it was a man in his 30s from the United Kingdom who had a history of engaging in this kind of activity. “We were able to stop it at that point,” Schneider said.

But even though it’s now under control, the digital scar is still there. “Once that violation occurs, it doesn’t go away,” she said. Schneider’s son’s case is still an open investigation.

McPherson said parents should talk to their kids weekly about digital safety and ask them questions; it can’t just be a one-time educational talk. She said with Christmas break coming up, kids will have more free time and be on their phones and social media apps, so now is a good time to start a routine of checking in.