W.Walker Peacock, Psy.D.
Braden Markus was, by all accounts, headed for greatness. At 15 years old, he was a gifted student and athlete, making the varsity football team in his sophomore year. Despite these talents, most people remembered him for his kindness, his infectious energy, and a smile that could “light up any room he entered.” But on October 17, 2021, Braden took his own life. Braden had been communicating with a teenage girl who had approached him on social media. After sending nude pictures of herself to Braden, the girl began pressuring Braden to do the same. Despite Braden’s multiple refusals, saying “I’m only 15”, the girl was relentless and eventually Braden gave in. Once he sent the picture, the story changed.
It turns out that Braden had not been speaking with a teenage girl, but instead had been communicating with an adult male who lived in Africa. The man had created a fake account on social media and sent Braden a friend request with the goal of obtaining personal information and/or photos, and then using the photos to extort money from Braden. Once he had Braden’s picture, the threats began. The man threatened to send the photo to Braden’s family and friends, as well as post the photo “on every porn site in the world” if Braden did not pay him $1,800.00. Braden pleaded with the man, explaining that he was only 15 years old and didn’t have that kind of money. The back and forth went on for roughly 27 minutes, at which point Braden ended the conversation and killed himself.
Braden was just one of thousands of people who are targeted in this way. It is a crime known as “Catfishing”, or “Sextortion.” Since 2016, the CyberTipline has received 262,573 reports of online enticement, including acts of sextortion, according to a report from the National Center for Missing or Exploited Children. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of reports involving sextortion more than doubled, according to the same report. And according to the FBI, the number of online romance scams and confidence scams increased by 22% in 2020.
The connection between the dates and the proliferation of these crimes is no coincidence. The pandemic’s surge in 2020 forced all of us into our homes, and cut us off from face-to-face social interaction. Teenagers, who are in the stage of development where social connections are of primary importance, were left to seek social interaction on the internet. In short, the internet became a target-rich environment for online criminals.
I have more than a handful of clients who have been targeted by these types of scams, and I want to pass along what I’ve learned from them:
- Never accept a friend request from a stranger, even if they share some of the same friends as you. I know this may seem obvious, but I also know how rational thought can fly out the window once a beautiful woman strikes up a conversation.
- Even if you do accept that friend request, do not engage in online conversation with that person. Catfishers can be master manipulators, and know exactly how to be whoever you need them to be.
- Signs that you may be dealing with a sextortionist include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Something does not add up. Their online profile doesn’t match what you see and hear when you talk or chat with them.
- It happens too fast. They express strong emotions for you almost straight away, and quickly tempt you across to a more private channel, suggesting you get nude or sexual in a video call.
- They make excuses. They say their webcam is not working and instead they send a nude photo which they claim is of them. Or they can’t talk to you on the phone because they don’t want siblings or parents to hear.
- They pile on the pressure. They keep asking you to be sexual and to send nudes with your face in the shot.
- Never. Ever. I mean, EVER send a nude pic over the internet. Fellas, I don’t know how to break this to you, but the only woman who will ever ask you for a pic of your junk… isn’t a woman. It’s a dude somewhere who is going to extort money from you and eventually sell the pic online. And for all of you who are under 18, I’ve got another solid reason not to send a nude pic: it’s a Federal Offense. Taking a picture of your junk and sending it to someone qualifies as both production and distribution of child pornography. Penalties for these crimes range from prison time (up to one year) and fines (up to $2,000.00). But there’s also a different sort of life sentence. You will have to register as a sex offender. That means that every potential college and employer will have access to that information. So… don’t do it.
- Now, let’s say you ignored my previous three points and you’ve found yourself in a bad spot. You accepted the friend request/follow request from that wicked hot girl from Tuscaloosa. She’s sent you photos and coerced you into sending some of your own. Now she’s become a he, and he is threatening to ruin your life if you don’t pay him NOW. This is the tough part, but trust me on this. You ready? Don’t pay. Don’t negotiate. Don’t beg. He doesn’t care and he won’t listen. Block them and delete them across all social media sites, and walk away. To a man, each one of my clients who has been through this experience has told me that once they cut off contact with the Catfish, the problems went away. My clients who contacted the police during their ordeal also told me that the detectives recommended cutting off all contact with the Catfish.
- You are NOT alone. As I said earlier, this crime has targeted thousands of teens over the years. Falling into this trap does not make you stupid or make you a bad person. These criminals are master manipulators who prey on the vulnerability and insecurity that are the hallmark traits of adolescence.
Tell someone. If you feel stuck or scared, that’s okay. The Catfish is going to threaten to do horrible things if you block them or if you tell anyone. They’re banking on the idea that you will feel scared and ashamed and you won’t want anyone to know. Don’t listen to them. Talk to your parents, an older sibling, or a trusted adult. You can also contact the FBI if you don’t feel ready to tell a friend or family member.
FBI Tip Line: 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324)