April 22, 2024

Study: Online ‘Sextortion’ is Fastest-Growing Crime Targeting Minors

Online “sextortion” is the fastest-growing crime targeting kids in the West, and social media companies are failing to do more to prevent it, according to a recent study.

A cybercriminal group in West Africa known as “Yahoo Boys” is driving “financial sextortion,” which involves coercing kids and teens into sending explicit images of themselves, and then threatening their family with wide distribution of the images unless they pay them repeatedly via payment apps, cryptocurrency transfers, or gift cards, according to a study from the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI).

The Yahoo Boys have been using the social media platforms Instagram, Snapchat, and Wizz to find and connect with their victims, the non-profit organization said. The cybercriminals also use social media platforms to promote their tactics and recruit new members.

The NCRI’s study found that the Yahoo Boys have posted training videos and guides to help others run a financial sextortion scam on social media platforms like China’s TikTok, Scribd, and Google’s YouTube.

Researchers also found dozens of videos showing self-proclaimed Yahoo Boys pulling off their sextortion scams on TikTok and YouTube. Scripts teaching other scammers what to say to their victims were also found on Scribd.

The NCRI also noted that such material published to various platforms had been more than half a million views.

In one YouTube video reviewed by NBC News and CNBC, a Yahoo Boy explained to viewers how to “catch a client,” instructing them to keep their victims engaged by acting “like a real girl.”

From there, the cyber scammers explained how to coerce their victims into sending explicit photos of themselves. The video even included a step-by-step explanation on how to threaten a victim and pressure them into sending payments.

One document found on Scribd included a script that read, in part, “You ready to comply with me? I will make you so miserable that you can’t even think … I will send your nude to lots of people online … Do you want this to happen – yes or no. If you do not want it to happen you will have to pay me.”

“How much you got there[?] If you are thinking of 200$ forget it I’m posting your nude and gonna make you die in pain,” the script added.

The NCRI also noted that these types of scripts had been available online for years, and are still readily available on social media platforms like Meta’s Instagram and Snapchat.

Paul Raffile, a senior intelligence analyst with the NCRI who co-led the study, told NBC sextortion is a “transnational crime threat that is actually causing a significant number of American deaths,” noting that this type of crime — which mostly impacts boys and young men — has led to victims committing suicide.

In August, for example, two Nigerian men were extradited to the U.S. to face charges involving a sextortion scam that authorities said resulted the suicide of a 17-year-old high school student in Michigan, according to a report by NBC News.

And in November, a Nigerian man was indicted by a grand jury after the Secret Service said he had used Yahoo Boys tactics — including sextortion — and wire fraud of $2.5 million, according to court filings obtained by CNBC and NBC News.

According to the indictment, the Nigerian man and his co-conspirators had used fake accounts on Facebook and Snapchat to pose as attractive young women in order to connect with young male users and gain access to their friends and follower lists, later getting them to send explicit images.

After threating to share the explicit photos, the Nigerian man promised his victims that he and his co-conspirators would delete — or at least refrain from distributing — the salacious images, as long as they receive payment.

But the scammers continued threatening their victims after receiving money, pressuring them to make additional payments, the filings stated.

Notably, these tactics of the Yahoo Boys have gained popularity in West Africa as a way to get rich quick, according to an Atavist investigation. The Yahoo Boys are even mentioned in popular songs, giving the cybercriminals more clout.

You can follow Alana Mastrangelo on Facebook and X/Twitter at @ARmastrangelo, and on Instagram.

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