Minnesota public safety officials seeing rise in sextortion cases

State public safety officials are warning Minnesotans of a recent rise in sextortion cases.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) says there were more than 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion involving kids across the country last year, per FBI data.

Authorities say the cases often seem like nothing when they start. It could be as simple as a child making a new friend in an online game, chatting for a while before escalating to swapping nude pictures. But that other person online often turns out to be an overseas criminal who then demands money or threatens to release the picture to parents, friends or others.

Affected children often feel ashamed and panic, which can lead to sending more pictures, videos or money, or agreeing to meet for sex acts, public safety officials say. Tragically, some victims have also taken their own lives.

“It doesn’t matter where in our state you live. If your child uses the internet, they are at risk,” DPS Commissioner Bob Jacobson said Monday. “Parents and caregivers, you are the first line of defense when your child is online. Talk with them about being safe, especially when meeting new people and sharing images or videos.”

According to FBI data, a large portion of the cases originate outside the U.S., which makes them extremely difficult to investigate or prosecute, DPS says. That’s why Jacobson says it’s important to prevent the cases in the first place and urges parents to talk with their kids about the potential danger.

“As a parent and a grandparent, I know it can be awkward to talk to your children about sex,” Jacobson said. “If you need help starting that conversation, there are resources available. Having a frank and honest talk with your child could be the difference. This can and is happening to Minnesota families and the consequences can be deadly.”

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

  • Get help before deciding to pay, as cooperating with demands rarely stops the extortion or harassment.
  • Report the predator’s account via the platform’s safety feature.
  • Block the predator but don’t delete the profile or messages because they could be useful to law enforcement.
  • Contact NCMEC for help getting the images off the internet if they were posted.

The FBI, NCMEC, Minnesota Department of Health, and the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline also have helpful resources online.

DPS also posted a video of a mother sharing her son’s sextortion story and detailing how what started as something so small and normal turned into a terrible situation.

The mother described how her son accepted a friend request on Instagram from someone he didn’t know just a day earlier. The person appeared to be a teenager and they started chatting online, moved over to Snapchat and led to exchanging of pictures. When they got explicit pictures with his face, they took pictures of his friends from social media and threatened to send those pictures to everyone if he didn’t send money. They even threatened to kill him at one point and started calling his phone through Snapchat, according to his mother.

“After looking at the messages myself, what was scary from a parent’s perspective is how they were very, very skilled at getting him to do exactly what they wanted,” the mother said.

However, through working with authorities and the NCMEC, they were able to make sure the pictures were flagged so they couldn’t be posted online and agents started pursuing those responsible.