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Sextortion boom targets teen boys in Minnesota

While once attributed to sexual predators, officials say the crime is now all about blackmail and sheer economics.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota law enforcement is trying to get parents engaged in conversation with their kids, especially young boys, in an effort to turn back a surging wave of sextortion crimes. 

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension says sextortion, once thought to be the domain of sexual predators trying to obtain images or set up sexual encounters, has become all about blackmail and sheer economics. 

"It's straight up blackmail," explains Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson. "Financial sextortion. And their target is most often young boys, anywhere from 10 to 17 years of age."

BCA commissioner Drew Evans says those behind the schemes contact their victims on gaming sites or social media pretending to be a young girl, and ask them to send explicit images that include their faces. Once received, the sextortionist threatens to publicly post the pictures unless a ransom is paid, often involving hundreds or thousands of dollars.  

If money isn't sent, the threats can escalate to the level of killing the victim, their family members or loved ones. 

Evans said the BCA's predatory crimes unit first began receiving tips about sextortion scheme a couple of years ago. Since then, he says, the bureau has learned of hundreds of incidents involving Minnesota children, mostly involving young boys. He shared that pressure on victims can become so great that they take their own lives, something that has happened in more than a dozen cases across the U.S. in the past year. 

"These crimes are being originated overseas, so it's very hard to hold people accountable," Evans explains. "The way we will get out of this problem is through education of our young people."

A Minnesota mom is sharing the story of how her son was recently targeted by a sextortion scheme. In a video shared by the BCA she recounts how quickly the criminals manipulated her son into sending explicit pictures of himself before he turned to his parents for help. Predatory Crimes agents are now investigating this case, along with many just like it involving families around the state.

The message to parents is simple: Have the conversation with your kids about the dangers of sharing images and information before it happens. And for children who are victimized, go to an adult or law enforcement instead of trying to handle things yourself. 

"The victims of these crimes didn't break any laws... they were tricked by a ruthless criminal," Jacobson said. "How it happened doesn't matter as much as telling a parent or trusted adult if it does. As a grandparent of children this age, I cannot stress enough... while we can and are investigating these crimes and working to hold criminals responsible, we need parents to help us prevent this crime from happening in the first place." 

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has outlined steps parents and caregivers can take if their child falls victim to a sextortion scheme:

  • Get help before deciding to pay. Cooperating with the demands rarely stops the extortion or harassment.
  • Report the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
  • Block the predator but do not delete the profile or messages because they could be useful to law enforcement.
  • NCMEC can help you get the images off the internet if they were posted.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has additional resources on its website.

The FBI also has resources available on its website as well.

The Minnesota Department of Health's "Safe Harbor Regional Navigator" program also has resources and information available for parents and teens.

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