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Parents issue stark warning over sextortion scam targeting teenage boys

Parents issue stark warning over sextortion scam targeting teenage boys

A brand-new documentary has explored the horrific blackmarket scam

Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide which some readers may find distressing.

There's a brand-new series coming to National Geographic next week (1 April) which sees award-winning journalist Mariana van Zeller explore the inner workings of the most dangerous black markets on the planet.

From the trade in body parts and hired assassins to sextortion and the smuggling of brides - each episode takes a dive into a different underworld to meet the players, learn the business, and better understand the world’s multi-trillion-dollar shadow economy.

National Geographic's upcoming series, Trafficked: Underworlds with Mariana van Zeller, explores  the inner workings of the most dangerous black markets on the planet.
National Geographic

"All it takes is one moment of trust"

The second episode of the 10-part series, titled Trafficked: Underworlds with Mariana van Zeller, is all about the ins and outs of sextortion, with parents issuing a stark warning over the harrowing new scam primarily targeting teenage boys.

In case you're unfamiliar with the term, sextortion is a form of blackmail in which compromising photos are used to extort victims.

The episode sees Mariana flew to the Philippines to try and find the scammer who shamed one young American victim into taking his own life.

However, she soon begins to unravel the web after uncovering a scamming culture that is bigger, scarier and more complicated than she could have ever imagined.

The scam in question 'feeds on loneliness' and 'thrives at the crossroads of desperation and greed'.

"All it takes is one message from a stranger, one moment of trust, one compromising to change everything," Mariana explained.

Mariana chatted to various individuals involved in the harrowing sextortion scam.
National Geographic

"You're my slave now"

The episode introduced viewers to Cindy, the Utah mother of a victim of sextortion.

"He was going to college, he was about to graduate to become a teacher," Cindy explained, speaking of her 21-year-old son Jake who was at home when he received a flirty private message on Facebook from a young woman back in 2015.

As the episode continued, Cindy then handed over Jake's phone to Mariana as she started reading out the last few messages that he had been sent from the individual.

One message instructed: "Go face a big mirror and take a full nude photo of you or a video. If you can't do that, then we can't play."

Jake had then asked how to know if he could trust the person, to which they responded: "You and me are just going to play and have fun... no need for trust issues."

At some point in the conversation, Jake did end up taking the picture to which he immediately 'in seconds' received the harrowing response from the scammer threatening to share the nude photo to all his friends, family and colleagues.

"You're my slave now," they taunted.

Sextortion is one of the primary dangers kids face online right now.
National Geographic

"In such a short time, they destroyed my son"

After 'dozens of messages back and fourth', Jake eventually reached a 'breaking point'.

He told the scammer: "I have decided that if the picture posts, I will end my life so I don't have to go through the pain and embarrassment as I will lose my job, my education and my family."

Then, just the following day, Jake tragically took his own life using a shotgun.

The entire process happened from a Sunday through to the following Friday with Cindy telling Mariana whilst breaking down into tears: "In such a short time, they destroyed my son."

The National Centre for Missing and Exploited children states that sextortion is one of the primary dangers kids face online right now.

In 2022 alone, 7,000 reports of the crime were filed with law enforcement in the US with more than a dozen cases resulting in suicide.

"Teenage boys are most at risk," Mariana says. "Experts say they aren't used to being targeted this way.

"They may be more likely to take a blackmailer's threats seriously and more fearful of asking for help."

Mariana explained that teenage boys are 'most at risk' of the scam. Mariana says.
National Geographic

The grieving mother added: "He was just too ashamed.

"It's happening over and over and it just feels like nothing's being done.

"I understand that my son pulled the trigger but they pushed him to do that. It feels like a murder."

She continued: "My life has been devastated losing my son.

"Maybe Jake's story can make people realise, it's just a picture."

Cindy then issued a warning to other parents, urging: "Talk to your kids, there's so many people that have been affected by this."

"No one's truly explaining how dangerous it is"

Elsewhere in the documentary, Mariana spoke to another grieving parent who had tragically endured a similar ordeal.

On 27 July 2022, Brandon Guffey's 17-year-old son, Gavin, ended his life with a gun.

"It sounded like a bowling ball coming down from a top shelf," Brandon recalled.

Gavin fell victim to sextortion by someone pretending to be a girl from college just a few towns over.

A bill has since been passed increasing the maximum sentence for a perpetrator in South Carolina to 20 years.
National Geographic

Guffey, a delegate in the South Carolina House of Representatives, took it upon himself to come up with a plan to bring awareness and justice to victims of sextortion.

Speaking about the scam, Guffey told Mariana: "It's still not out there enough and it doesn't really make the news and no one's truly explaining how dangerous it is.

"As a parent, you hear something like that and you think, 'Well that won't happen to me. My kid's smarter than that'.

"Yet, I still get messages every single day from somebody that's being extorted asking for advice."

Following his teenage son's passing, Guffey began working towards putting the dangers of extortion on the agenda with a bill proposal that would increase the maximum sentence for a perpetrator in South Carolina to 20 years - naming it Gavin's Law after his son.

"The primary purpose of it is to raise awareness," he explained.

While the bill is state-limited, Guffey hopes it would inspire 'a wave of similar bills across the country, eventually making it federal law'.

Mariana says our best defence against sextortion is 'awareness and communication'.
National Geographic

Tearing up at the stand when discussing the bill, Guffey then read out a list of names of other kids that, just since his son, had also taken their lives as a result of sextortion.

Gavin's Law was passed unanimously and signed into law August 2023.

Rounding off the episode, Mariana resolved: "If my experience as a journalist, and a mother, taught me anything - it's that our best defence is awareness and communication."

The ten-episode series Trafficked: Underworlds with Mariana van Zeller begins next week (1 April) at 10pm on National Geographic.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.

Featured Image Credit: National Geographic

Topics: Crime, Documentaries, News, Parenting, Sex and Relationships, TV And Film, UK News, US News, World News, Money, Social Media