FBI warns of increasing 'sextortion' cases in Wyoming

·4 min read

Oct. 17—CHEYENNE — The FBI is warning of increased cases in Wyoming of what it calls "sextortion," or an adult coercing a minor to send them explicit images or perform explicit acts over a webcam.

Perpetrators of sextortion will then threaten the child or teen with harm or with distribution of earlier images if they begin to resist, the FBI says.

A more recent trend, according to officials, is offenders asking for a monetary payment from the minor in exchange for not releasing explicit images. This scheme seems to target boys between 14 and 17 years old.

In 2022, "almost 80% of offenders are seeking money from the victims," said Leonard Carollo, one of three assistant special agents in charge at the FBI's Denver field office. Carollo oversees all criminal investigations in Colorado and Wyoming. He couldn't give specific numbers, but he said a "significant" amount of these offenders live outside the U.S.

Although "any kind of online sexual exploitation can occur anywhere in the world," officials have recently noticed an increase in reported cases in Wyoming, Carollo said in a Thursday interview.

In one recent case, a Bangladeshi national was arrested in Malaysia for allegedly running a sextortion operation with hundreds of minor victims in the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. Attorney's Office for Alaska earlier this month unsealed a 13-count indictment charging Zobaidul Amin, 24, in what it called "one of the most malicious, digitally facilitated sextortion and child pornography production schemes investigated to date by the FBI."

About a dozen of those victims were Wyoming children and teens, Carollo said.

The FBI worked "very closely" with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to identify the alleged victims, interview them and provide victim services, Carollo said.

Why it's happening

Like any online scheme, offenders can target victims from pretty much anywhere, the special agent said, and they go after multiple victims.

Carollo said this crime may have become more common in recent years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Kids were home, they were not in school — they were, of course, online more often, and they had unfettered access to the internet," he said.

Wyoming DCI Special Agent Chris McDonald, who leads that agency's Internet Crimes Against Children team, said the large increase likely also had to do with social networks becoming better at detecting child sexual abuse material (often referred to as child pornography).

When social media networks detect this material, they report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Members of the public can also send tips to report.cybertip.org if they suspect a child is being exploited online.

The tips that NCMEC identifies as having Wyoming ties all end up on McDonald's desk, he said. In 2018, there were 199 total cyber tips, with that number increasing to 262 in 2019. In 2020, that number more than doubled to about 560, McDonald said. Last year saw more than 610 cyber tips.

Since 2016, NCMEC has received 262,573 reports of online enticement, the FBI says. Sextortion falls into this category. The number of reports involving sextortion more than doubled between 2019 and 2021, according to the bureau.

The reason offenders are targeting more and more boys may be because there's an assumption that they won't report the exploitation, both Carollo and McDonald said.

What to do

Carollo advised parents to monitor what their children do and who they talk to online. He said there are things parents can look out for, such as a teenager withdrawing from the family or isolating themselves.

"I think the biggest thing is, talk to your kids. That's the biggest message that we can put out there for parents," he said.

The FBI is working to raise awareness about sextortion and other types of child exploitation that can happen online. They go to community meetings and do media pushes in an effort to "educat(e) kids and parents on the dangers of the internet, and making kids aware that ... if they ever send a picture or video, once it's out there, it's out there — they typically cannot get it back," Carollo said.

McDonald said people should generally work to protect their personal information online. If an online conversation becomes sexual or explicit very quickly, or a person wants a lot of information from you and won't share much about themselves, sextortion is possible or likely, he said.

Officials want children and teens who fall victim to sextortion to know they won't get in trouble if they report the crime to authorities.

"Many kids feel embarrassed by that, they feel shamed. Many kids have engaged in self-harm. So, that's a concern for us, as well," Carollo said.

It's imperative that victims don't delete anything they've sent or received, he added. And if kids don't feel comfortable bringing this issue to their parents, they should find a trusted adult to discuss it with, and then report it to law enforcement.

Hannah Black is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's criminal justice reporter. She can be reached at hblack@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3128. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahcblack.