FBI warns parents ‘sextortion’ cases involving children on the rise

Specifically, the FBI warns parents that they are seeing in increase in the number of sextortion cases involving minors across the country.

Sextortion’ Becoming a Growing Problem for Children and Teens.

As the school year across the country winds down, the threat of online predators is on the increase, the FBI said.

Specifically, the FBI warns parents that they are seeing in increase in the number of sextortion cases involving minors across the country.

Over the last five years, they say prosecutions are up 60 percent.

Catherine Connell, a licensed social worker and child/adolescent forensic interviewer and program manager with the FBI, says she sees a number of damaging effects from the crime among the victims she works with, including depression, anxiety, hopelessness, fear, and suicidal thoughts. “The trauma level we see with these kids is significant,” said Connell.
Parents and caregivers should make decisions for their family about screen-time rules and limits. Connell does feel regular spot checks and conversations about who your child is conversing with and what applications they are using can be important, but the nature of these ever smaller, ever more powerful, and ever present devices mean children will have many unguarded and unsupervised moments online.

Barrett said that after dealing with many of these cases, he feels the most important messages to young people are simple ones:

  • Many people online are not who they say they are.
  • Don’t talk to people you don’t know online.
  • Understand that any content produced on a web-enabled device can be made public.
  • If you are being threatened or coerced online, tell someone. There is help and there is hope.

Sextortion is “when an adult coerces or entices a child to a minor kid under 18 to produce a sexually explicit image of themselves and then transmit that image to them on the internet,” Brian Herrick, the Assistant Section Chief of the FBI’s Criminal Division told ABC News.

Mark Barnwell is one of those adults and was sentenced to 35 years in prison in January 2019 for setting up female-presenting, false personas on Facebook the Department of Justice said (https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdil/pr/texas-man-pleads-guilty-sextorting-minors-illinois).

Barnwell, according to the government, on a female-presenting profile, would tell minor girls that he was offering them a modeling job that paid thousands of dollars, with one catch: they had to send photos of themselves in sexually suggestive positions and poses.

“Hey would u be interested in modeling they pay 500-5000 a shoot,” the initial message would usually say, according to the indictment.

Once Barnwell received the images, he’d threaten to post them online, attempting to hurt the minor victim, if he didn’t receive more.

His technique was textbook according to Herrick.

FBI Special Agent Brian Herrick defines sextortion and talks about how young people are being manipulated and coerced into creating and sharing sexually explicit content online.

“This starts the cycle of victimization that is very hard to break out of because now, it’s not one picture. It’s several pictures, it’s videos,” Herrick said.

In some cases, the predator will get a sibling involved as well.

Barnwell, according to the government had 43 victims, which is common practice for offenders.

“We go to an arrest and we put them in handcuffs, we take his computer, we look at his computer and we don’t find one victim. We don’t find 10 victims. We find 100, 200, 500 victims,” Herrick said.

The one common denominator is that most offenders are male, the FBI said.

Herrick says they could be as young as 18 all the way up to grandfathers. “All walks of life. They’re doctors, they’re lawyers. I hate to say they’re policemen. They are people in positions of trust, they are coaches, they are teachers.”

It is not just on social media, the FBI warns, online gaming sites have become a target of these online predators.

To understand how and why young people become victims, it helps to understand the mind of a young person and the techniques used by the criminals.

First, this crime is happening where young people usually feel most comfortable—in their own homes, connected to a device or a game that feels familiar and safe. “It’s important for both parents and children to realize that their guard is typically down when they’re engaging with their device,” said Supervisory Special Agent Brian Herrick, assistant chief of the FBI’s Violent Crime Section.

Second, young people are not adults. Connell stressed that however smart or mature a teen may seem, his or her brain is not fully formed. As they ride through what she calls a perfect storm of social, emotional, sexual, and cognitive development, they are making imperfect decisions. “Your teens are facing decisions with more emotion and less cognitive thinking and judgement,” she said. “They are not thinking, ‘If I do this, this is what may happen, this could be a consequence.’ ”

Finally, young people are up against criminals who have spent a great deal of time and energy learning how to target them. In the Finkbiner case, he used a fake profile of an older teen girl to start a conversation with adolescent and teen boys. He would then stream sexual images he had captured of a female victim and encourage the boy to send pictures or go on a webcam.


To report suspected sextortion, call the nearest FBI field office or 1-800-CALL-FBI (225-5324). To make a CyberTipline Report with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), visit report.cybertip.org.