FAYETTEVILLE -- The FBI and local police are reporting an increase in "sextortion" crimes in Northwest Arkansas, with young boys increasingly being targeted.
Mark Grimm, special supervisory agent for the FBI office in Fayetteville, said the increase in schemes targeting young males reflects a national trend. He said the predators persuade victims to provide sexual videos or photos and then rely on threats and embarrassment to coerce their victims into providing money.
"It's not just in Arkansas, it's national," Grimm said. "Particularly with young men, the fraud really succeeds if the subject is embarrassed."
Grimm said a typical scheme begins with the predator posing as a young girl and trying to establish a relationship with the victim online or on social media. If they can persuade the target to provide a sexual image then the extortion begins.
"They turn around and use that image or video and the threat that they'll make it public," Grimm said. "They demand the target provide them with gift cards or information for bank accounts they have access to."
Grimm said he couldn't discuss specific cases but said the FBI and local police in Northwest Arkansas are seeing more and more reports of the crime.
Recent arrests in Benton and Washington counties show some of the earmarks of this type of crime. In Benton County, Matthew Nance is currently being held in the Benton County Jail in connection with rape and sexual extortion. Court records indicate the victims in those crimes were young girls. Other court records show search warrants for social media accounts used by Nance found IP addresses with locations in Africa.
Grimm said "a lot" of the sextortion crimes reported show links to African criminal enterprises also active in cyber fraud, banking fraud and other internet crimes.
In Washington County, Coleton Russell of Vian, Okla., was arrested Aug. 31 in connection with sexual extortion. Sexual extortion under Arkansas law is a Class B felony with penalties of five to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said Russell's case showed similarities to the types of cases the FBI is reporting.
According to the criminal information filed in Russell's case during November and December 2021 that he "with the purpose to coerce the victim to engage in sexual conduct or sexually explicit conduct ... communicated a threat to harm the reputation of the other person, or produce or distribute a recording of the other person engaged in sexually explicit conduct or depicted in a state of nudity." Court records show the victim in the case is a juvenile. Russell was released from the Washington County Detention Center Sept. 1 on $15,000 bond.
Durrett said some cases may be handled in state courts but others are taken up by federal courts. Connor Hagan, public affairs officer for the FBI office in Little Rock, said federal law states any person who forces or persuades a minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct can face up to 30 years in prison. Additionally, Hagan said, most sextortion crimes also involve the use of a computer, which is an additional offense that can be punished by up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the reports the organization receives show how sextortion is changing. Since 2016, according to information on the center's website, the CyberTipline has received 262,573 reports of online enticement, the category that included sextortion. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of of reports involving sextortion more than doubled. The center also reports in the past the dominant motive of offenders was to get more explicit images of a child but in reports from early 2022, 79% of the offenders were seeking money.
Grimm said the use of social media platforms by the predators in these cases make it essential that parents, guardians and other adults are available to the victims and open to communication. Victim services providers agreed communication is the key to preventing or minimizing these crimes.
Casey Atwood, program director at the Children's Safety Center of Washington County, said she's aware of the recent increase in sextortion cases targeting young boys.
"I know that it is happening," Atwood said. "It's a growing trend. Technology is ever-evolving and kids are getting access at younger and younger ages."
Atwood said that parents need to replace or modernize the antiquated "birds and the bees" conversation about sex and discuss the risks kids are facing today.
"Parents and guardians need to get out of the window of having a once-in-a-lifetime talk about the birds and the bees and have conversations about things they've seen or heard about in today's world. Some people may be afraid that they're putting ideas in kids' heads. Don't worry, they're already being exposed to all those things."
Atwood said the center website has a list of crisis hotlines and community resources.
Gretchen Smeltzer is executive director of Into the Light, a nonprofit organization providing services to victims of child sex trafficking. Smeltzer said she has also seen reports of the trend of young boys being targeted in sextortion crimes. She also said communication is vital.
"We would encourage parents to have a 'preemptive' talk with their boys about it," Smeltzer said. "That this is an issue that is going on and to let them know that they're not going to be in trouble if they tell you about it. Taking away that barrier of embarrassment and fear. Being non-judgemental is going to help open the doorway for a child to feel safe and to share what has happened to them."
Smeltzer said Into the Light has resources available online and through a hotline. She said the group makes informational presentations to individuals and to groups.
Groups offer parents resources in sextortion cases
Local groups that provide victims services in crimes involving juveniles say parental awareness and communication is the key to limiting of preventing sexual exploitation of children. Parents can find resources online at a variety of sources including:
• The Children’s Safety Center of Washington County at www.childrenssafetycenter.org
• Into the Light at www.intothelightus.org
• The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at missingkids.org
• The Beau Biden Foundation at beaubidenfoundation.org
Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette