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Alarming surge in 'sextortion' scam targeting Aussie teenagers

Kids Helpline explains to Yahoo News how teenagers are being scammed and why boys are the main target.

Authorities have warned of an emerging trend targeting teenage boys who are being tricked into sending sexually explicit pictures, before being blackmailed for money.

Until now, approximately 70 per cent of calls made to the Kids Helpline come from females, with males making up only about 20 per cent, but this "deliberate and targeted" act is seeing young males fall victim, counsellor Leo Hede told Yahoo News Australia.

Over the past five years, 78 per cent of calls about sexual extortion have come from young males, increasing from two young males in 2017 to 116 in 2022, recent Kids Helpline data shows. Additionally, 90 per cent of victim reports to police are from young males, the Australian Federal Police reported. Mr Hede said it's an "emerging trend" and the AFP is seeing up to 100 reports a month.

Teenage boy on red laptop.
An increasing number of teenage boys aged between 14 and 17 are being targeted by sexual extortion. Source: Getty (file picture)

What is the 'sextortion' scam?

Mr Hede explained young males are often approached online by who they think are young girls online. They're usually enticed to share personal information across multiple platforms — including Facebook Messenger and Snapchat.

"These [criminals] are posing as females, enticing boys into engaging in sexualised discussions. Then they might initiate contact by sending a photo of ‘themselves’ — usually a sexual or explicit image of a young woman — and then the young males are reciprocating by sending a photo of themselves," he told Yahoo News Australia.

Some boys reported the criminals threatened to release their intimate images online if they didn't hand over thousands of dollars, said Tracy Adams, the chief executive of Kids Helpline provider Yourtown.

"Victims often feel like they are powerless to do anything to prevent the release of the images they have shared and feel they will be deeply shamed and embarrassed," she said.

Criminals targeting young boys in online scam.
Authorities say overseas criminals are posing as young girls and blackmailing boys for money in an emerging online scam. Source: AFP

Surge of online financial sextortion

The AFP noted a surge in the online financial sextortion trend targeting young Australians over the school holiday period. The spike in reports comes as children return to the classroom for the 2023 school year, with a nearly 60 per cent rise in reports in December 2022 alone.

"We are seeing offshore criminal syndicates targeting a victim’s entire friend list," said acting Assistant Commissioner Hilda Sirec. "This type of financial sextortion involves victims being coerced into sending sexualised images or videos of themselves by online offenders, usually with the offender pretending to be another young person. The offender then threatens to on-share the content to others unless the victim pays."

This kind of blackmail was becoming increasingly common with overseas organised crime syndicates often behind the demands, Australian Federal Police acting commander Jayne Crossling said. "This is a global phenomena," she told the ABC.

"Those typical syndicates have been scamming adults for decades now, they've just now decided to pivot because they can see there's perhaps some money to be made on young people," she added.

What should victims do?

While it's unclear why young boys were being targeted more than girls, Mr Hede suggested a possible cause.

"I think the nature of young males and their interest in engaging in intimate and sexualised behaviours is a fairly normal part of development for them, so perhaps they are more susceptible to being targeted," he said.

Possible victims are being encouraged not to send money or further photos, and to stop all contact with the blackmailer immediately. Mr Hede said it's a good idea to take screenshots as evidence and report it right away. Services such as Kids Helpline were also available to help with the mental toll, Ms Adams said.

"If your child is or has been a victim, it is important to stay calm and reassure them it's not their fault and that there is help available," she said.

Young people can access Kids Helpline either online or on 1800 55 1800, and Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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