What is financial sextortion? Urgent warning about threat preying upon teens | Investigation

ByCheryl Mettendorf and Chad Pradelli WPVI logo
Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Urgent warning about the rise of financial sextortion | Investigation
What is financial sextortion? Urgent warning about threat preying upon teens | Investigation

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Authorities have issued an urgent warning about a threat preying upon teens.

It is called sextortion, where an offender coerces a minor to create sexually explicit images or video of themselves. The suspect then threatens to release the content to friends and family unless the victim produces more images for sexual gratification or pays money for financial gain.

The FBI says a global financial sextortion crisis is underway and it has led victims to self-harm and even commit suicide.

The Pennsylvania Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) is working to combat the problem.

Authorities said criminal networks are largely targeting boys.

"We've seen kids as young as 4 or 5 years old who are sharing images," said Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, whose office oversees the task force.

He said in Delaware County alone, there were 48 reports of financial sextortion in 2023, and this year is on pace to nearly double that.

The FBI also has received 13,000 reports of financial sextortion over a year and a half-period ending in March of last year.

"We've seen children all over Pennsylvania and all over the United States who are having to steal from their parents and everybody they know to try to stop this from happening to them," said Stollsteimer.

Detective Sgt. Ken Bellis called financial sextortion a volume-based business, with the criminal networks targeting potential victims online from their computers in countries, which don't cooperate with United States law enforcement.

"What do you think -- out of every 10 victims how many actually pay?" asked investigative reporter Chad Pradelli.

"Too many," replied Bellis.

"So they'll take the image, they can get other images that are on the boy's social media like their family pictures, and put together a collage. Then they threaten to blast it out to all their contacts on their Instagram or their Snapchat," he added.

Pauline Stuart's son, 17-year-old Ryan Last, was a victim in 2022.

"He literally begged them not to ruin his life," said Stuart.

The criminals reached out to him on Google Hangouts.

"They eventually sent him a picture and they asked for one in return. And within 30 seconds of him sending one, they demanded $5,000 from him," she added.

Ryan sent $150 because that was all he could afford. But the criminals demanded more.

"It started at about 6 p.m., and by 2 a.m. he took his own life," Stuart said.

Ryan's suicide is one of nearly two dozen nationwide due to financial sextortion, according to the FBI.

Jonathan Kassi, of Southern California, served 18 months behind bars after he pleaded guilty.

Kassi was what's called a "money mule," who accepted payment for his co-conspirators in West Africa since Ryan was unable to wire money overseas.

Stuart, who lives in San Jose said Ryan was a well-adjusted teen.

"Most of these kids were more popular kids involved in sports or other clubs. So, they felt they had a lot to lose," added Bellis.

Bellis' message to parents and victims caught up in financial sextortion report the crime.

"Do not pay the money because they won't go away. If you pay them, they know they got you," he said. "They're going to keep hounding."

Earlier this month, President Biden signed the REPORT Act, which requires internet and social media companies to report a wider range of crimes like grooming and enticement.