(FOX59) — A 19-year-old Indiana woman is recounting her traumatic experience of being sexually exploited as a child.
The woman, who asked us to conceal her identity, was a victim of sextortion. She said she was just 12 years old when what seemed like innocent attention from strangers took a dark turn on the online chatting site Omegle.
“They would just be like hey, how’s your day?” she explained. “Then after that, it would be straight to ‘what are you wearing?’.”
As with most sextortion cases, it progressed from talking to pictures to video chats. Oftentimes, they started the chat by showing their privates. She said she couldn’t tell how old some of them were, but estimates a lot of the men were in their 30s to 50s.
“Sometimes I would tell them like, ‘hey I’m 13’ or ‘hey I’m 14’,” she said. “And they would get, like, more turned on by that.”
She admitted she went back because it was nice to have people complimenting her.
FBI Special Agent Andrew Willmann said sextortion is a growing problem. There were 18,000 complaints to the bureau, targeting teenage boys for money and girls for explicit material. He said perpetrators will ask them to produce videos themselves and send them. That’s when the blackmailers will demand money, saying they’ll share the pictures and videos with family and friends if they don’t.
Willman says the perpetrators do their research.
“They’re going on the child’s social media, seeing what they’re posting and they’re picking up on who might be vulnerable, who’s not having the positive family interactions.”
What can parents do to protect their children?
The survivor we spoke with, who is 19 now, just told her mom about the abuse in April, even though it happened from the time she was 12 to 17.
“When she told me I couldn’t even catch my breath,” her mom, who also wished to remain anonymous, said.
The victim’s mom said she saw behavioral changes in her daughter but never suspected they were from sextortion.
“She was aloof, she didn’t want to be bothered, she wanted to stay in her room by herself,” the mom said. “There were cuts, there were visible signs.”
The mom kept a monitoring app on her phone throughout but it did not reveal the abuse. The FBI said the monitoring apps are merely a tool.
“They aren’t going to catch everything,” Willmann said. “Your child needs to know that you can look at it no matter what time and anytime, you can take a look at that phone.”
Unfortunately, Willman said many child victims are afraid to come forward. He said parents and trusted adults can rescue victims faster. “The victims that we see that get caught early are the ones that have very open relationships with their parents, they know that their parents aren’t going to treat them horribly because they’ve come forward and said that I’ve got a problem,” Willmann explained.
As for the survivor we spoke to, she had advice for everyone, “If they tell you they’re going to send all this stuff to your family and friends and your school, or if they’re going to post it online, they’re not going to,” she said. “You just gotta ghost them pretty much.”
Willman said even though this is a prevalent crime, it’s not certain all children will be victims.
Here are three things you can do to better protect your children:
- Make sure your children know you can look at their phones at any time
- The apps that are the most concerning are those that automatically delete messages, like Snapchat and Telegram, so, encourage them not to use those
- Talk with young people about only speaking to people they actually know in real life
National Center for Missing & Exploited Children can help
If a child or person posts a photo or video online and wants it removed, reach out to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) whose team can help you get it taken down. Just visit www.missingkids.org.
“Our teams have a specialization and expertise in this,” Lauren Coffren, NCMEC’s Exploited Children Division Executive Director, said. “We know exactly who to go to, how to be able to get that content taken down, and oftentimes we have success. Over 99% success of getting images removed within about 29 hours.”
NCMEC also offers a CyberTipline that gives everyone a way to report child sexual exploitation. In 2021, NCMEC sent more than 75,000 notices to companies regarding child sex abuse material.
Additionally, NCMEC breaks down the CyberTipline reports by electronic service providers. For example, Omegle.com, where our survivor was victimized, has 46,924 reports listed for 2021.
Here is a graph of the companies with the highest number of reports. Keep in mind, NCMEC said higher report numbers can be attributed to more users on a platform or how diligently the platform works to identify and remove abusive content.
NCMEC also offers connections to legal help as well as therapists for child exploitation survivors.