EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Adults are using fake profiles on social media to trick boys into engaging in sexually explicit conduct, secretly recording them, and threatening to distribute the images unless the minor forks over some money, federal officials say.

It’s a scheme that’s gaining popularity lately, with the perpetrator often posing as a young girl or boy looking for boys 14 to 17 years old, said Jeffrey R. Downey, special agent in charge of the FBI El Paso Field Office.

Some of the so-called “sextortion” cases the FBI has run across lately involve a single offender that may have coerced hundreds of boys around the world.

“This is an increased crime that we’re starting to see, not only in El Paso, but nationwide. We’ve seen about a 200 percent increase in ‘sextortion’ crimes in our area of responsibility,” Downey said.

“Sextortion” has been around for many years. Victims often are young women, but now extortionists and sexual predators are going after underage males – some as young as 7.

“They’re befriended by an adult who portrays himself as being the same age and builds a relationship with them,” Downey said. “In time, they get them to go to a different social media platform (where) they start to ask the children to make sexually explicit videos or take photos of them. And the children will do that because they think they’re talking to someone their age.”

Using the initial images as a bargaining tool, the adult pushes the child to further engage in the explicit activity. “If they don’t do it, they threaten the child that the photos will be released to their friends, their families and other people on social media, which obviously has a huge impact on the mental health of the child,” Downey said.

The FBI says the predators sometimes operate from foreign countries; their ransom consists of small amounts of money or gift cards the child might get from his parents. The distance sometimes is a hurdle in catching these criminals, but the main obstacle is the child keeping quiet.

“The most difficult thing is getting victims to come forward to identify the (perpetrator). It’s always a challenge because people are able to mask themselves, but we as the FBI have had great success in identifying and bringing these perpetrators to justice,” Downey said. “

The boys may feel embarrassed, may not know who to turn to, so that’s where parents come in, the FBI says. Depression, withdrawal and other changes in children’s behavior are some of the signs parents should monitor for.

FBI graphic

“It’s important for parents […] to have good dialogue with their children, to try to identify what may be going on,” Downey said. “The other thing is parents talk to them about the threats that are online but also be able to monitor social media activity.”

The FBI said its agents strive to treat minors whose pornographic images appear online as victims, especially because sometimes they didn’t know they were recorded.

“I think it’s important to stress that the child is not in trouble. The only ways we can solve these cases is to have the victims come forward,” Downey said. “If somebody feels they are a victim of ‘sextortion,’ the FBI has a lot of resources not only to investigate the case but also to help the victims.”

To report sex crimes against children, call your local police at 911, the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI or visit https://tips.fbi.gov/