WASHINGTON (WANE) – A national public safety alert has been issued by the FBI, warning families about an “explosion” of financial sextortion schemes targeting thousands of minors.

In partnership with Homeland Security Investigations and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI released statistics Monday that show at least 3,000 children and teens over the past year have been extorted for money and coerced into sending explicit images online. In total, the FBI said there have been over 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion this past year, and more than a dozen suicides.

The FBI said the victims, mainly boys, are targeted by predators in online environments where young people feel most comfortable—using popular social media sites, gaming sites, or video chat applications that feel familiar and safe. On these platforms, online predators often use fake female accounts and target teen boys between 14 to 17 years old, but the FBI said it has interviewed victims as young as age 10. 

According to the FBI, predators deceive the young person into sending an explicit video or photo. Once predators get the material, they threaten to release it publicly unless the victim sends money or gift cards. In many cases, predators release the material even if payments are made.

The shame, fear, and confusion that victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevent them from asking for help or reporting the abuse, the FBI noted. 

“The FBI has seen a horrific increase in reports of financial sextortion schemes targeting minor boys—and the fact is that the many victims who are afraid to come forward are not even included in those numbers,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

“The FBI is here for victims, but we also need parents and caregivers to work with us to prevent this crime before it happens and help children come forward if it does,” Wray said. “Victims may feel like there is no way out—it is up to all of us to reassure them that they are not in trouble, there is hope, and they are not alone.” 

With winter break around the corner for children in school, families are urged to discuss with their kids how to prevent exploitation.

“This is a growing crisis and we’ve seen sextortion completely devastate children and families,” said Michelle DeLaune, CEO of the NCMEC. “As the leading nonprofit focused on child protection, we’ve seen first-hand the rise in these cases worldwide. The best defense against this crime is to talk to your children about what to do if they’re targeted online. We want everyone to know help is out there and they’re not alone.” 

A large percentage of these sextortion schemes originate in West African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, according to the FBI.

“The sexual exploitation of children is a deplorable crime. HSI special agents will continue to exhaust every resource to identify, locate, and apprehend predators to ensure they face justice,” said Steve K. Francis, the acting executive associate director of HSI. “Criminals who lurk in platforms on the internet are not as anonymous as they think. HSI will continue to leverage cutting-edge technology to end these heinous acts.” 

Families can find resources on sextortion schemes on the FBI’s website.