What Every Parent Needs to Know About Sextortion, an Increasing Threat to Children Online

Trigger warning: This post contains references to child sexual abuse and suicide. Please be advised. 

One of our primary goals at Mace is to keep people safe. That’s why we spend a great deal of time educating the public on threats to personal safety and how to overcome them. This post outlines a danger many parents don’t know about. Even though self-defense products like pepper spray can’t help people address this threat, we recognize that raising awareness can. 

We recently were introduced to Tim and Tamia Woods, founders of the Do It For James Foundation. They talked to us about a crime known as sextortion, which involves children and teens being threatened and coerced into sending explicit images online. 

How Does Sextortion Work?

Sextortion can start on any site, app, messaging platform, or game where people meet and communicate. After criminals have explicit videos or pictures, they threaten to publish the content or threaten violence to get the victim to produce more images. In many cases, criminals also threaten to release material unless the victim sends money or gift cards. The offender often releases the victim’s explicit material whether or not they receive payment. 

The FBI says it has seen a significant increase in cases involving children and teens who are threatened and coerced using sextortion. The shame, fear, and confusion children feel when caught in this cycle often prevent them from asking for help or reporting the abuse. Unfortunately, the increasing threat has resulted in an alarming number of deaths by suicide.

A Tragic Turn of Events

Tim and Tamia Woods’ son James was the victim of sextortion perpetrated by criminals living outside of the United States. Unfortunately, his life was cut short because of the actions of these greedy criminals, who extorted money from him and mentally tortured and harassed him, sending more than 200 messages in 19 hours.  

According to his parents, James was exhausted from a lack of sleep. He tried everything he could to stop his friends and family from learning about the images criminals took of him. Sadly, on November 19, 2022, James took his life. It wasn’t until after he passed that his parents learned about what happened to James.

Raising Awareness Is Essential 

Tim and Tamia Woods began working with law enforcement and the media to tell James’ story and warn parents about this invisible evil. They also founded the Do It For James Foundation to warn others about this online threat. The Foundation is holding a walk/run 5K event this August to celebrate James’ life and continue to raise community awareness around sextortion. They hope to save other children—and families—from experiencing this kind of loss at the hands of cold, calculated criminals online. 

How to Get Help

If you or someone you love is the victim of a sextortion scheme, report it to local law enforcement and your local FBI field office. Call 1-800-CALL-FBI or report it online at tips.fbi.gov. The FBI also has staff dedicated to assisting crime victims. Learn more about the FBI’s Victim Services Division and know your rights if you are the victim of sextortion and your images are posted online. 

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