The St. Petersburg Police Department has received dozens of sextortion reports – often involving teen boys and perpetrated by organized crime rings – that cost residents thousands of dollars.
Sextortion typically involves extorting money from someone by threatening to release nude photos or videos. Multiple victims have committed suicide, according to local FBI officials.
At a Thursday morning press conference, St. Pete Police Chief Anthony Holloway said his agency received 11 juvenile and 25 adult sextortion cases since January. He also noted that embarrassment hinders reporting.
Dave Walker, special agent in charge at the FBI Tampa Division, said a 15-year-old boy’s family recently made nearly $15,000 in sextortion payments. Walker and Holloway implore victims to report the crime as soon as it occurs.
“We’ve had 15 cases alone in the last week here,” Walker said. “So, you can imagine how many there are nationwide.”
SPPD officials publicly announced the influx of sextortion cases in June. Holloway said the FBI then joined the local fight to combat an increasing problem.
Walker said sextortion cases follow a similar pattern. While anyone can become a victim, teen males are the most frequent targets.
Walker explained that criminals approach targets online, often through dating sites and social media. The video messaging platform Snapchat is popular among extortionists as it does not feature an extensive user profile.
He said the perpetrator, often an organized crime or gang member, will pose as a similar-aged female and begin flirting. Eventually, they exchange or request nude photos from the victim.
“We had one case, here in St. Pete, where a guy paid a person more than $10,000 in two months so they would not post his picture on social media,” Holloway said. “And then after he stopped making payments, the bad person went ahead and did post his picture on social media.”
An SPPD spokesperson said the agency recently received a case involving an elderly resident. Daniel Nowack, a special agent with the FBI’s Pinellas County office, said sextortion affects the gay and straight population equally.
“Anybody who is using the internet could potentially be a victim,” Walker said.
Nowack explained that some criminals are, unfortunately, intelligent and will first ascertain a target’s personal information and interests. That includes sexual preferences, favorite sports teams and anything they could use as a bonding mechanism.
“It went from one or two cases to suddenly, we’re seeing a flurry of cases,” Walker said. “I think that’s probably a combination of some of these organizations getting more organized and also realizing, ‘Hey, that’s a pretty good racket.’”
Sextortion cases often originate far beyond local law enforcement’s purview. Walker said the FBI traced several to Nigeria.
In addition to social media, he noted that criminals will send illegally obtained nude photos to parents and school messaging boards – even after they receive payment. “And the best way to prevent this crime is to make sure it doesn’t occur,” Walker added.
“It’s gotten so bad that we had several suicides before we were aware of it.”
Local law enforcement officials hope that spreading awareness will help mitigate the problem. They created a public service announcement video as part of an informational campaign.
However, Holloway said solutions start at home. He encourages parents to have tough conversations with their children, and noted that the SPPD’s youngest victim was just 9 years old.
“I think what makes it more insidious is we’re seeing victims are getting younger and younger,” Walker added.
Holloway also warned that compromising pictures remain online forever. He wants extortionists to know that “in time, you will get caught.”
“Thanks to our federal partners, we have a lot of resources and assets that are available to us,” Holloway said. “And the people who have been extorted need to call us. Because if you don’t call us, we can’t solve this problem.”
For more information on sextortion, visit the FBI’s website here.
For additional information, visit the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website here.
The St. Petersburg Police Department public service announcement video below is available through the agency’s social media channels.