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AG Nessel, School Leaders Warn Parents and Students to Beware of "Sextortion"

LANSING – With young people spending more time at home and on the internet, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators (MASA) are urging parents and teens in particular to be on high alert for predators who are working around the clock to trick teens into exposing themselves online. The subsequent “sextortion” occurs when the predator befriends a teen, manipulates the teen into exposing themselves by sending photos or videos, and the predator then threatens to share the material if the teen doesn’t send money or more inappropriate images.

Two male high school students in an Allegan County school district were recent victims of sextortion—a form of online sexual exploitation that typically occurs against kids ages 10 – 17. The teens were lured into a private video chat by a female and later blackmailed via email with demands of payment via Western Union or PayPal.  

“Technology continues to be a crucial tool as we work to stay connected throughout the pandemic, but it’s important to remember that any child allowed to use the internet in any capacity should be educated on how to protect themselves from predators,” said Attorney General Nessel. “I am grateful to the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators for raising awareness of this important message and I implore parents and guardians to remain actively engaged in their children’s online activities. I encourage anyone who may be a victim of sextortion to notify law enforcement immediately.”  

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), offenders can gain information from the online presence of potential victims by reviewing posts and friend lists. They then pose as an acquaintance, a student from the victim’s school or one in the area, or even as a stranger with similar interests. A predator may review a friend list and identify additional victims once the sextortion process begins. This type of victimization can last for years and has the potential to cause the victim to harm themselves.  

With an estimated 77% of sexual solicitations of youth being made online, an informative video on how predators lure in teens is available here.  

With virtual school fueling heightened online activity for so many, officials with MASA are stressing the importance of talking to teens and ensuring they’re aware of the warning signs. Most importantly though, officials are urging parents to monitor online activity and make certain their kids know to notify them immediately if they’ve been approached by anyone they do not know online. While an interaction may seem innocent in the beginning, it can quickly lead to a compromising position.  

“In addition to remote learning, students are spending even more time online these days for fun, which makes this recent rise in sextortion cases especially concerning,” said Dr. Tina Kerr, Executive Director of MASA. “We’re hearing from district leaders across the state about it happening to students they know and we want to do everything we can to help combat it. MASA is glad to be teaming up with the Attorney General’s office and OK2SAY to share this important information throughout our school communities and, hopefully, ensure that more Michigan students aren’t innocent victims.” 

Michigan’s OK2SAY student safety program allows students to confidentially report tips on potential harm or criminal activities directed at school students, school employees and schools. OK2SAY is available to help via phone, text, email, or mobile app.  

The FBI recommends the following measures to help educate and prevent children from becoming victims of this type of sexual exploitation: 

  • Make children aware that anything done online may be available to others; 
  • Make sure children’s apps and social networking sites’ privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible; 
  • Anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian or law enforcement immediately; 
  • Victims should not be afraid to tell law enforcement if they are being sexually exploited because it is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled to do so; 
  • Parents should put personal computers in a central location in the home; 
  • Parents should review and approve apps downloaded to smart phones and mobile devices and monitor activity on those devices; 
  • Ensure an adult is present and engaged when children communicate via webcam; and 
  • Discuss internet safety with children before they engage in any online activity and maintain those discussions as children become teenagers. 

If you’re unsure of what to do if you or someone you know might be a victim of sextortion: 

“Cybercriminals and scammers will continue to find ways to prey on unsuspecting victims, and it’s critically important that we remain vigilant,” Nessel said. “Parents can monitor their children’s online activity and discuss with them the potential threats that exist in the digital world, and if anyone finds themselves in a position where they may have become the victim of a sextortion crime, I again encourage you to file a report with authorities so we can take the appropriate measures.”