A San Jose mother is raising the alarm on an increasing scheme known as “sextortion” following the death of her 17-year-old son, who committed suicide after a person posing as a young girl online threatened to post explicit photos of him if he didn’t give them money.
Pauline Stuart said that her son, Ryan Last, received a message online in February from someone he believed to be a girl, CNN reports.
The conversation quickly grew intimate when the scammer sent Last a nude image and then asked him to share an intimate photo of his own. Once he did, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000 from him, threatening to make the image public and send it to his family and friends.
Last told the scammer that he could not pay the full amount, and the demand was ultimately lowered to $150, which the teen paid with his college savings. But the demands for money persisted, Stuart said.
“They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him,” she told CNN.
Stuart told the network that she was unaware of what her son was experiencing and that she learned about the details leading up to his death from law enforcement investigators.
Stuart had told her son goodnight at 10 p.m. But by 2 a.m., he had taken his life. He left a suicide note describing the embarrassment he felt for himself and his family.
“He really, truly thought in that time that there wasn’t a way to get by if those pictures were actually posted online,” Stuart said. “His note showed he was absolutely terrified. No child should have to be that scared.”
Law enforcement agencies refer to this crime as “sextortion,” which is “when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money,” according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has seen a rapid increase in complaints from victims of such crimes, which has prompted the FBI to launch a campaign to warn parents across the country, CNN reports.
The bureau received more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, with losses in excess of $13 million.
“To be a criminal that specifically targets children—it’s one of the more deeper violations of trust I think in society,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Costin, who leads a team of investigators working to counter crimes against children, told CNN.
Costin said that many of the sextortion scams reported to the FBI are determined to be perpetrators in Africa and Southeast Asia. Costin said the FBI is working with their law enforcement counterparts around the world to help identify and arrest scammers who are targeting children online.
Costin added that it’s been a challenge to track down criminals because many victims do not report the incidents to law enforcement.
“The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles that the victims have to overcome,” Costin said. “It can be a lot, especially in that moment.”
However, investigators urge victims to report incidents to their local FBI field office either by phone or online. Officials and researchers alike also encourage parents to take steps to safeguard their children from such crimes.
“The most important thing that a parent should do with their teen is try to understand what they’re doing online,” Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent medicine at Mass General in Boston, told CNN. “You want to know when they’re going online, who they’re interacting with, what platforms they’re using. Are they being approached by people that they don’t know, are they experiencing pressure to share information or photos?”
He added, “You want to make it clear that they can talk to you if they have done something, or they feel like they’ve made a mistake.”
Stuart said that she hopes sharing her son’s story will help save lives.
“How could these people look at themselves in the mirror knowing that $150 is more important than a child’s life?” she told CNN. “There’s no other word but ‘evil’ for me that they care much more about money than a child’s life. I don’t want anybody else to go through what we did.”
The investigation into Last’s case remains ongoing.
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