St. George mom shares warning after FBI sees rise in sextortion scams targeting teen boys

Feb 9, 2023, 10:12 AM | Updated: 10:17 am

ST. GEORGE, Utah — A St. George mom is sharing a warning for other parents, as the FBI says it’s seeing a huge rise in teens targeted in sextortion scams.

The FBI Salt Lake City field office said Wednesday that sextortion cases have skyrocketed in the past year, and agents are getting a dozen new leads every week on cases involving kids.

The teens are left in turmoil, the FBI said, not knowing how to respond to threats they’ll lose everything and compromising photos of them will be plastered online if they don’t pay.

Some kids are paying thousands of dollars, while the schemes were connected to more than a dozen suicides in 2022.

FBI: Steep climb in teens targeted by online ‘sextortion’

No one knows the impact of that kind of scam more than Cindy George.

In the front hall of her home, George has a curio cabinet full of pictures and memorabilia.

“This is a cabinet that I keep as a memento, of Jake,” she said, looking at framed pictures of her son Jake Curtis. His red St. Louis Cardinals baseball hat sits next to his Philadelphia Eagles tie.

Pictures show her 21-year-old son on a national parks trip they took together in the fall of 2015. One photo shows him making a fun, goofy pose in front of the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park.

Back then, George didn’t know her son would only be alive for two more weeks.

She wouldn’t even know why Jake died until it was too late.

“In his letter to me, he said, “Mom, I’m so sorry,’” she remembered, through tears. “He said, ‘These people are going to ruin my life. They’re going to ruin my job, they’re going to ruin my career and they’re attacking family members.’”

In a note he left behind, Jake told his mom to look through his phone and gave her the name of someone he had been talking to in the Philippines.

It would take four months for her to get his phone back after his death, but when she opened it up, George discovered that Jake fell victim to a sextortion scam.

Based on what she found on his phone, she believes it started when Jake met a girl in an online dating app. At the time, he was attending Utah Valley University and not living at home.

“They flirted around, they got him comfortable, and then they asked him to take a picture,” she said, of the messages she read. The person sent a couple of photos to Jake and asked him to send one in return.

George recounted how, after sending one single photo, the messages turned into threats and demands for money.

Using information they publicly found on Jake’s social media pages, they told him they were going to go after specific family members if Jake didn’t pay up. They brought up his workplace and threatened to get him fired.

“He believed they could destroy his life,” George said.

Jake sent the scammers three payments of hundreds of dollars, George explained, cleaning out his bank account. He didn’t have any more money to send and pleaded with the scammers to leave him alone. They continued to harass him, and on Oct. 30, 2015, Jake died by suicide.

George could feel the helplessness her son felt, reading back through the messages.

“In five days my son was gone because he was embarrassed,” George said, pausing as she choked back tears. “And these people are so evil.”

FBI Special Agent Curtis Cox, who serves on the Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force in Salt Lake City, explained how they’re getting new sextortion cases sent to them every day.

He has noticed an upward trend in the last year, while the age of the victims continues to get younger.

FBI warns about spike in financial sextortion crimes against youth

“Almost in every instance that we’ve seen recently, the victims are teenage boys. They’re contacted by somebody on social media that’s pretending to be 14 or younger girl, a teenage girl,” Cox explained. “They engage in chat, right, they build relationships, they talk. And then the requests for compromising images come.”

He said the criminal will send pictures and request them in response. Once the teen sends pictures back, Cox explained, then the scammers reveal themselves and begin asking for money.

Parents need to talk to their kids, and Cox suggested parents educate themselves on what apps their children are using and who their children are communicating with.

It’s a good idea to set boundaries, rules and restrictions up front, he said.

If a child has fallen victim to a sextortion scam, Cox said parents need to be approachable and report it to law enforcement immediately.

Save all messages and don’t delete them, Cox said. While sextortion can be a difficult crime to prosecute because scammers often live in other countries, Cox indicated that if the criminal is inside the U.S., then it’s easier to catch them.

George never got the chance to talk to her son and tell him that everything would be OK — and that his life would not have been destroyed with one picture.

She is now hoping to help prevent someone else from going through what Jake went through.

“There’s a way out,” George pleaded. “People out there can help you. Tell someone.”

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call, text, or chat the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 which is answered 24/7/365 by crisis counselors at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. All calls to legacy crisis hotlines, including the old National Suicide Prevention hotline, 1-800-273-8255, will also connect to a crisis care worker at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute as well.

Additional resources

  • SafeUT: Parents, students, and educators can connect with a licensed crisis counselor through chat by downloading the SafeUT app  or by calling 833-3SAFEUT (833-372-33888)
  • SafeUT Frontline: First responders, including firefighters, law enforcement, EMS, and healthcare professionals can chat with a licensed crisis counselor at no cost 24/7/365 by downloading the SafeUT Frontline app.
  • SafeUTNG: Members of the National Guard can chat with a licensed crisis counselor at no cost 24/7/365 by downloading the SafeUTNG app.
  • Utah Warm Line: For non-crisis situations, when you need a listening ear as you heal and recover from a personal struggle, call 1-833 SPEAKUT 8:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m., 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
  • The Huntsman Mental Health Institute offers a wide variety of programs and services including suicide prevention and crisis services, hospital treatment, therapy & medication management, substance Use & addiction recovery, child & teen programs, and maternal mental health services including birth trauma, pregnancy loss, infertility, and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
  • LiveOnUtah.org is a statewide effort to prevent suicide by promoting education, providing resources, and changing Utah’s culture around suicide and mental health. They offer resources for faith based groups, LGBTQ+, youth, employers, firearm suicide prevention, and crisis and treatment options.

Other community-based resources

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St. George mom shares warning after FBI sees rise in sextortion scams targeting teen boys