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OJJDP News @ a Glance February 2024

From the Field

Teaching Parents To Protect Kids from Financial Sextortion

Ryan Last
Ryan Last died by suicide 6 hours after he was contacted by a financial sextortionist. (Photo courtesy of ICAC Commander Sean Pierce.)

Financial sextortion traps happen fast. A kid—most often an adolescent boy—gets a friendly instant message from a stranger they think is a peer. They might chat online about music or video games and flirt a little bit—then the new “friend” sends an explicit photograph. Your turn, they say. Flattered, caught off guard after the friendly banter, the young person reciprocates.  

That’s when the exchange turns ugly, says Sgt. Sean Pierce, commander of the Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC), one of 61 task forces in OJJDP’s ICAC Task Force program. The stranger (typically located outside the United States, the FBI says) demands a large sum of money, threatening to distribute the image to the youth’s entire online network—parents, grandparents, classmates. Everyone. Panicked, the young person transfers money or shares financial information—or, fearing humiliation, they do something dire. At least 12,600 young people were victims of financial sextortion between October 2021 and March 2023, according to FBI reports. At least 20 of them died by suicide.

The Silicon Valley ICAC launched the Vigilant Parent Initiative in 2019, in response to the “overwhelming” number of cyber tips the ICAC received, Sgt. Pierce says, and to involve parents in efforts to combat child exploitation. The Internet contained ample educational information about online child exploitation prior to the initiative’s launch, he says, but most of it was designed for youth. “Nobody was doing anything with parents.” 

The Silicon Valley ICAC added sextortion to the Vigilant Parent Initiative curriculum in response to the death of Ryan Last, a 17-year-old boy from San Jose, CA. Ryan thought a flirtatious messenger was a girl his age until “she” demanded $5,000. Ryan sent the money—taken from his college account—but the person demanded more, threatening to circulate Ryan’s photograph across social media. Ryan died by suicide just after midnight, 6 hours after receiving the first message. 

Vigilant Parent Initiative classes are hosted at local schools, which provide Wi-Fi and commit to recruiting at least 25 participants. The interactive, 90-minute classes are held in the evening, outside the typical workday. Instructors bring iPads loaded with at least two social media apps, so parents can see the risks themselves. The goal is to teach parents how to talk to their children about financial sextortion and steps kids can take to protect themselves—from protecting passwords to online privacy. Instructors also teach parents how to respond when a child confides they’ve been sextorted. 

The “easiest” targets for financial sextortion schemes are adolescents “with a lot to lose,” Sgt. Pierce says. Straight-A students. High school athletes. Kids with lots of friends and a large online footprint. Ryan Last was a Boy Scout. He had raised sheep for an agricultural program and built sets for his high school’s theater program. He was headed for college. 

Ryan’s mother, Pauline Stuart, often joins Sgt. Pierce for Vigilant Parent classes, to share Ryan’s story. Her words hit hard. Most parents “are completely shocked” by how quickly the situation spiraled, Sgt. Pierce says—but that’s the point. 

“They might get upset [during the class], but I guarantee that parent is going to be way more vigilant when they leave,” he says. Participants often return as volunteers to assist with future trainings. Some tell Sgt. Pierce their own “success stories,” he says—when their child was sextorted but disclosed the situation because they knew their parents would help. 


Schools interested in hosting a sextortion prevention class can submit a request on the Vigilant Parent Initiative website.

Date Created: February 22, 2024