After getting a frantic call from her teenage son that someone online was demanding money, this mother immediately called NCMEC for help. He’d sent a sexual image to a girl he thought was his own age. Turns out, he was caught up in a terrifying scheme where criminals are extorting children.
First, it's not just your kid. These cases are exploding. Whatever is unique about this age group – whether it’s their own insecurities about their recent journey through puberty, their comfort level with interacting with strangers online, the isolation created by social media, whatever – they are prime targets for this scam. Kids all over the world are falling for sextortion blackmail in record numbers. It's not just your kid.
Second, it's not you. It's not bad parenting. You told your child NOT to friend strangers on social media or send nude pictures. But they're kids. Literally, they only have half a brain. They are going to do dumb things. There is no point at this moment asking WHY ON EARTH (because let's be real, WHY ON EARTH???). Hug your kid, tell him how incredibly brave he was to tell you, and that you will fix it together.
Block the blackmailer's accounts, but don't panic and go through your kid's phone willy-nilly deleting all the apps and all the photos. I know this might feel counterintuitive, but to put a stop to these people and to help track if, where, or when your kid's photos are shared, it helps to have access to the apps when you report it to NCMEC.
Report it. As soon as you can, go to www.CyberTipline.org and make a report. This likely does not feel like “enough.” When your child is hysterical and you are overwhelmed and dealing with a frightening situation that you never could have imagined, filling out an online form feels inadequate. If you want to talk to someone to confirm that they received the information and are acting on it, call 1-800-THE-LOST. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has sadly heard far too many of these cases, and they can help diffuse the panic. Speaking to someone at NCMEC directly was the turning point for me and my son, dialing back the fear and helping us to get to a point where we could breathe again.
Protect others. Have your kid tell his friends his phone was hacked and to NOT accept any invitations from anyone they don't know directly, or just because the person's contact list has your son as a “friend” or a connection. That was part of the trap that caught my kid – on the blackmailer's account, “she” appeared to be a friend of someone he knew, so he figured she was “safe.”
Share. It's a hard thing to admit to people that you fell into this trap. Admitting, “Yeah, I took pictures of my bits and sent them to a complete stranger” seems really dumb, and it’s embarrassing in retrospect. But silence only gives these horrible people a bubble to work inside and puts other kids at risk. If your child doesn’t want to say it was him, have him share it as a third person story – my cousin did this thing, this happened to my friend – so that other kids and parents know this is a real thing, happening to real people right in their own backyard.
As the crime of sextortion continues to grow online, it’s more important than ever for parents to be aware of the crime and continue to have conversations with children about their online safety. Read more about sextortion and what NCMEC is doing about it here.
If you or someone you know is ever a victim of sextortion, follow these steps:
Block the account, but don’t delete it. It can be natural to want to delete the images and messages, but the account information could be helpful to law enforcement in an investigation.
Report the incident to the platform. Check out NCMEC’s guide for reporting to some of the most popular platforms and apps.
Contact NCMEC! You can call us at 1-800-THE-LOST or make an online report at CyberTipline.org. NCMEC has resources to help victims and their families navigate this situation.
Use NCMEC’s “Take It Down” tool. Take It Down is a free service that can help you remove or stop the online sharing of nude, partially nude, or sexually explicit images or videos taken of you when you were under 18 years old. You can remain anonymous while using the service and you won’t have to send your images or videos to anyone. Take It Down will work on public or unencrypted online platforms that have agreed to participate. Get started at TakeItDown.NCMEC.org.
Remember, it’s important to teach your children safe online behaviors. But this crime is not their fault, and we’re here to help.