SAN ANTONIO — The FBI is warning parents about a worsening problem they call "sextortion."
Detectives say predators typically target boys between 10 and 17 years old in the scheme. The crime begins when an adult contacts that child online, through social media or gaming platforms.
The predator, posing as a young woman, will often move the conversation to a messaging app. There, they manipulate their victim into sexual conversation that usually ends with a nude photo or video exchange.
"Once that person gets the boys to send those photos, they immediately start to extort them for money," said Jim Thompson, a special agent in the FBI's San Antonio division.
The criminal mines their victims' social media pages to identify friends and family. Then, the predator threatens to forward the sexually explicit messages to the child's acquaintances unless he or she pays a fee.
It is not an empty threat, Thompson says. Some criminals will share the content if the child is not compliant.
"The child gets kind of trapped in this panic situation where they don't know what they can do," he said.
In other sextortion cases, the FBI says sexual predators may solicit more explicit content from the child using the same extortion threat. The requests tend to become increasingly "graphic and humiliating," Thompson said.
"We're going to prioritize the ones who have a sexual interest in children," he added.
Victims should cease contact with the catfish and delete their social media pages, Thompson said. But the problem is particularly tricky, he says, because children are often too embarrassed to seek help.
"You have to have a trusting relationship with your children so they're comfortable coming to you," he said.
By telling an adult, victims can help prevent predators from targeting other children.
The FBI contends the problem is worsening, largely because more children have access to smartphones and social media.
Any child with a smartphone or social media accounts is susceptible to predatory behavior, detectives say.
Parents should be aware of the threat, Thompson says, and talk to their kids about online relationships.
"The person that seems to be an attractive female that (children) don't know in real life is probably not a female at all," he said. "It's probably someone in another country, who's probably a man, doing this for money."
"In general, the individuals who are doing this certainly don't live in San Antonio," he continued.
The FBI says parents should be selective about what they share online. Predators can use a parent's profile to learn about their child.
Children should be suspicious if they meet someone on a game or app and they ask to talk on a different platform, detectives say.
Never share sexually explicit content on social media or on the phone.
If you believe someone you know is the victim of sextortion, contact the FBI San Antonio Division at 210-225-6741, the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. Do not delete anything before law enforcement is able to review it. Tell law enforcement everything about the encounters you had online. It may be embarrassing, but it is necessary to find the offender.