Financial sextortion most often targets teen boys via Instagram, according to new data

Whitney Matewe

A new report on financial sextortion reveals that Instagram appears to be the most used platform for sextortion in the U.S., and that teenage boys appear to be the ones most frequently targeted.

The report, released jointly by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the anti-child sexual abuse technology company Thorn, reviews data on financial sextortion cases reported to NCMEC between 2020 and 2023. The number of reports of sextortion increased dramatically after 2022, up to more than 600 reports a week in the past year.

NCMEC is the U.S. organization tasked with receiving tips about child exploitation, and most of the victims were based in the U.S. and spoke English, though the data also indicated there were victims in other countries who spoke other languages.

Sextortion is the act of threatening to disseminate someone’s nude, intimate or sexually explicit imagery if they do not comply with your demands. Historically, child sextortion has primarily victimized girls with demands for further imagery, sexual acts or relationships, according to the report. But NCMEC’s child sextortion data shows the emergence of financial sextortion specifically, in which perpetrators extort victims for money, as a rising trend that is largely affecting boys.

Of the financial sextortion reports that were part of the study and contained data about gender and age, 90% of the victims were boys between the ages of 14 and 17.

The report notes that victims are often “catfished,” or led to believe they are talking to another teen, and convinced to send explicit images of themselves to the perpetrator, who then uses the images as a form of blackmail.

In a small number of cases, victims reported having offenders threaten them with fake, artificial intelligence-generated photos of the victim, also known as deepfakes.

The rise of financial sextortion has been linked to crime networks in Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, where the tactic has been promoted as a method to get rich quick.

Instagram was the most mentioned platform in the financial sextortion data. In reports where an offender threatened to distribute intimate imagery online, 81.3% threatened to disseminate the material on Instagram. In cases where material was actually disseminated online, 60% of the reports said it was disseminated on Instagram. YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat were also frequently named in threats to distribute, and Facebook was second behind Instagram as the platform where material was actually disseminated, accounting for 33.7% of such reports.

Instagram and Snapchat were the two platforms where reports said offenders most often made first contact with victims, with Instagram mentioned in 45.1% of reports that indicated where first contact was made and Snapchat mentioned in 31.6% of such reports.

In a statement provided to NBC News, an Instagram spokesperson said: “Sextortion is a horrific crime. We work aggressively to fight this abuse and support law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting the criminals behind it. As NCMEC has noted, higher reporting numbers are often the result of a platform’s efforts to detect and report abusive content — and we’ve spent years doing both. We’ve already implemented many of the report’s recommendations, and recently announced a range of new features designed to help protect people from sextortion.”

After establishing contact, sometimes offenders moved victims to secondary platforms to send and receive intimate images. Snapchat was mentioned as a secondary platform in 35.8% of reports and Google was mentioned in 23.8% of these reports.

In a statement provided to NBC News, a Snap spokesperson said: “We know that sextortion is a risk teens and adults face across a range of platforms, and have developed tools and resources to help combat it. We have extra safeguards for teens to protect against unwanted contact, and don’t offer public friend lists, which we know can be used to extort people. We also want to help young people learn the signs of this type of crime, and recently launched in-app resources to raise awareness of how to spot and report it.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “We will review the report and take action on any content that violates our policies. We have strict policies in place to protect our users from scams and other harmful behaviors, and enforce them rigorously using a combination of human review and machine learning technology.”

Instagram’s child safety record has come under intense scrutiny in the last year.

In June 2023, Instagram was the subject of a Wall Street Journal report that said the app had become a tool for a vast network of accounts “openly devoted to the commission and purchase of underage-sex content.”

In December, New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torres sued Facebook and Instagram, saying that they failed to protect children.

And in January, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on child safety.