St. Petersburg police say the agency has investigated 34 sexting extortion cases in the first five months of 2023 — more than double the number of cases reported during the same time frame last year.
Sexting extortion occurs when someone solicits explicit photos, then threatens to post them online or send them to the victim’s friends and family unless the victim meets certain demands, which often include large sums of money.
Detective Henry Snowden said cases of sexting extortion against minors have increased 67% from last year, and 47% against adults. The youngest victim reported to St. Petersburg police is 9 years old. The oldest victim is in their 60s.
“A good way to protect children is (to) be more mindful with what your children are doing on internet platforms,” said Snowden, who is part of the St. Petersburg Police Special Victims Unit Crimes Against Children Division. “Be aware of who they’re communicating with. Have these difficult conversations on what not to put out there to the world on the internet, especially inappropriate pictures.”
The scammers use dating apps, social media and online gaming sites to meet their victims. Some scammers target children by using gaming platforms and Snapchat, taking advantage of the fact that many children believe photos taken on Snapchat disappear, St. Petersburg police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez said.
“Any kind of gaming app where you can talk to someone online, there is always a danger that there will be some kind of predator or somebody on there who is falsely representing themselves,” Fernandez said. “That’s why we really think it’s important for parents to talk to their kids about (how) it’s not right to ever send any photos of themselves to strangers, let alone an explicit photo.”
Police have not identified a connection between the cases or a clear reason behind the spike in this particular type of crime.
The police department warned the public in a news release recently that these cases are different from the more well-known cases of “revenge porn” because there is never a genuine relationship. Instead, the perpetrators often use aliases to conceal their identities because their goal from the start of the relationship is to scam victims.
“What differentiates these from revenge porn is that in revenge porn they’re just looking to embarrass their ex,” Fernandez said. “In these cases, the target is to extort money from victims, to blackmail them.”
Scammers go to great lengths to earn victims’ trust and conceal their true identities, using stock photos and hidden IP addresses. Some of the fake accounts have been traced to locations outside of Florida, even overseas. These obstacles make it difficult for detectives to identify and prosecute scammers, Fernandez said.
“In some cases, scammers send victims stock photos that they say are of themselves naked to make the victim feel more comfortable in sending naked pictures,” Fernandez said. “But, in the end, as soon as they receive those explicit photos, they demand payment. The only goal is to demand payment. We have had victims who have paid out thousands of dollars because of the threat.”
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While the scammers’ desired payment is often money, Fernandez said some perpetrators demand payment in the form of more explicit photos. A Pinellas Park man was arrested on charges of extortion and child pornography in February after getting a girl to send him topless photos over Snapchat, then threatening to post them unless she sent him more. In this case, police were able to use the Snapchat user’s IP address to locate him, but many scammers use blocked or foreign IP addresses.
Snowden also arrested a Largo man on an extortion charge June 1. According to an arrest affidavit, the man screen-recorded a juvenile girl exposing herself over FaceTime in 2019. Two years later, in 2021, he threatened to share the video with the victim’s friends and family unless she gave him $200.
Fernandez said the only fail-proof way to avoid sexting extortion is to not send explicit photos.
“Remember these images last forever on the internet and it’s very difficult to prosecute them,” Fernandez said. “I think we certainly can plant that seed for parents to talk to their kids and for adults who are being encouraged or pressured to send these photos that they need to think about this.”