Teens Targeted: Funding and resources remain a constant challenge as law enforcement tackles sextortion and internet crimes

There is currently not a federal law that specifically tackles sextortion
Content Warning: This story contains references to suicide. Call, text or chat 988 if you or someone you know needs help.
Published: Jul. 17, 2023 at 12:36 PM CDT
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Content warning: This story contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know are experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling, texting or chatting 988. The original hotline number, 1-800-273-8255, is also open. Additional resources can be found at 988lifeline.org

(InvestigateTV) — Walker Montgomery was a star football athlete, described by his family as a hard worker who shined just as much off the field as he did on it.

“He was always rough and tough, but he was always polite. Growing up, Walker was just always a kid that wanted to please,” Walker’s father, Brian Montgomery, said.

Walter Montgomery was just 16 years-old when he was approached by an online predator...
Walter Montgomery was just 16 years-old when he was approached by an online predator pretending to be a teen girl.(Brian Montgomery)

But the special light in Walker’s young life was extinguished in the blink of an eye after the 16-year-old unknowingly shared an explicit video of himself with a predator online.

“Walker died as a result of suicide, from the pressures brought on by sextortion,” Montgomery said.

The exchange, Montgomery said, started out innocent enough. Walker was approached online by someone he thought was a teenage girl, who first talked with him about sports and other topics he was interested in.

Eventually, however, the supposed teen convinced him to participate in a sexual act over video chat.

“All the time, Walker didn’t know it, but he was being recorded,” Montgomery said. “And at the end of that episode, they come back and said, ‘You’re going to give us a $1,000 or we’re going to send this to everybody that you know.’”

Walker pleaded for the predator not to release it, his father said.

“Then they started sending screenshots of them sending the video out,” Montgomery said. “And Walker tells them in that series, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’ and these people respond with, ‘Go ahead, ‘cause you’re already dead anyway.’”

The entire exchange happened in a single night, according to Montgomery.

“They approached him at midnight of December 1 [2022] and Walker took his life that same morning,” Montgomery said.

Authorities, who confiscated Walker’s phone for their investigation of his death, discovered the online exchange.

“They were able to track the perpetrators to Nigeria,” Montgomery said. “And they were able to send a subpoena to Instagram, figure out where the IP address originated from.”

While law enforcement has yet to identify the individual Walker was speaking with, Montgomery has faith that one day they will be caught and brought to justice.

Federal agencies collaborate with various nations to track sextortion cyber criminals overseas

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Homeland Security Investigations, a division within the federal agency, there has been a rise in incidents like Walker’s, where children and teens are being coerced into sending sexually explicit images or videos online and then extorted for money. A crime known as financial sextortion.

Experts say financial sextortion schemes often take place in online environments where young people feel most comfortable, like common social media or gaming sites, or video chat applications.

Online predators often use fake female accounts and target boys 14 to 17 years old, but the FBI has interviewed victims as young as 10.

Through deception, predators convince the unknowing victim to produce an explicit video or photo. Once they have the images, the predator threatens to release the compromising material unless the victim sends money or gift cards, according to law enforcement.

Often, the cybercriminal will demand payment through a variety of peer-to-peer payment applications.

In many cases, however, the FBI says the predator will still release the images even if payments are made.

A flow chart showing the two types of sextortion.
The graphic reads: 
"A crime that involves a...
A breakdown of the types of sextortion according to federal investigators.(Graphic by Daniela Molina, InvestigateTV)

The shame, fear, and confusion victims feel when they are caught in this cycle often prevent them from asking for help or reporting the abuse, experts say.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, its CyberTipline received more than 32 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation in 2022. Of those reports, more than 80,000 were for Online Enticement, the category that includes sextortion.

Over the past year, federal law enforcement agencies received more than 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors with at least 3,000 victims, most of whom were boys. The FBI reported over a dozen suicides in the last year as a result of financial sextortion.

Mike Prado is deputy assistant director of the Homeland Security Investigations’ Cyber Crime Center. The agency is responsible for identifying and targeting cybercrime activity, including sextortion cases.

“I mean, sadly, we know of numerous instances where children have taken their own life because of the pressure and the fear of embarrassment and exposure is so great that they have seen no other alternative other than suicide, which is extremely tragic,” Prado said.

The FBI and Homeland Security Investigations have found most sextortion criminals are located in Africa, in either Ivory Coast [Republic of Côte d’Ivoire] or in Nigeria, as in Walker’s case. The federal agencies split the two geographic locations, with the FBI focusing on investigations out of Nigeria and Homeland Security tackling those in Ivory Coast.

Prado said they’ve recently hosted the Security Minister of the Ivory Coast to combat and stop sextortion scammers.

We’re working collaboratively to identify organizations and individuals who are perpetuating this crime against children, not just in the United States, but around the world,” Prado said.

Homeland Security also works closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, which has a tipline for people to report suspicious activity.

Funding, resources, and data collection remain a constant challenge for internet crime task forces

Mike Prado with Homeland Security Investigations explains efforts its department has in fighting against sextortion. Videojournalist: Austin Hedgcoth

Homeland Security partners with 61 Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces across the United States.

“We share information daily with them, and there are shared databases housed right here at the Cyber Crime Center that we have all law enforcement access to so we can share that information and be as efficient in our investigations as possible,” Prado said.

In an effort to find out how prevalent sextortion cases are across the country, InvestigateTV reached out to each task force individually.

Many provided similar responses: that while they receive thousands of cyber tips a year, sextortion isn’t tracked in its own category.

While the reasons from the task forces varied slightly, most centered around the lack of a state statute or criminal code that specifically targets sextortion.

The task force in Indiana told InvestigateTV it “does not have a criminal code section that specifically addresses sextortion, and these cases could be investigated under numerous Indiana laws.”

Similarly, the task force for the state of Florida said “there is no statute that deals specifically with sextortion.”

At the same time the crime could fall into one of several exploitation categories depending on the state — there is also no federal statute of any kind that specifically addresses sextortion.

South Carolina is one of the more recent states to try and tackle this emerging crime.

Earlier this year a state legislator introduced “Gavin’s Law,” after his son took his own life after being extorted. If passed, the law would create felonies for crimes of sexual extortion and aggravated sexual extortion.

InvestigateTV asked Prado what should be done nationally to strengthen laws for tracking and prosecuting sextortion cybercriminals.

“Certainly, the laws on the books give us a lot of authority and ability to track and apprehend individuals. You know, once we take them to court and go through the judicial process, certainly being able to get more collaboration at all levels of law enforcement and internationally is always important to each side,” Prado said. “We always are looking for additional partners, always looking for additional support. We’re looking for the cooperation. Most importantly, of the public and parents to be full partners in our fight against child exploitation.”

On top of underreported numbers, funding and resources continue to remain a big obstacle for task force agencies.

States can receive federal funding — but InvestigateTV discovered not all states receive the same amount of award money through grants. The funds, which task forces have to apply for, also vary from year to year.

Advocacy and education of sextortion across the nation

Alicia Kozak, an abduction survivor and advocate, helped secure the passage of Alicia’s Law, which provides a steady stream of state-specific funding to the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces.

Kozak was one of the first known cases of child abduction and online exploitation after being kidnapped from her Pittsburg home by a predator she met online in 2002.

Washington is one of 12 states that have passed the law.

“While we do get federal funding through that, we also are extremely thankful that we also get state funding here in Washington state,” Seattle Police Department detective Brandon James said. “So, our Washington State legislature has provided us additional funding as well. Not every state has that.”

James is head of the task force in Seattle and provided InvestigateTV with an exclusive look at their task force facility.

“I have about seven detectives. We cover normal [internet crime] investigations. I also have a detective that just does criminal intelligence and I have detectives who also do digital forensics,” James said. “So, they are specifically trained in mobile computer forensics. So, when we do collect digital items and evidence. They go through those in a very systematic way for gathering that evidence for court.”

InvestigateTV interviewed Detective Dalgit Gill and her search dog Nala. Nala can sniff out electronic devices predators use. Videojournalist: Austin Hedgcoth

One of the detectives on his team is Daljit Gill.

“I investigate crimes against children that happen online where kids sometimes get sextorted into sending pictures or other sexual acts,” Gill said.

Gill’s partner on the team is a Labrador named Nala, the task force’s electronic detection dog.

“When we go on warrant days, and we get to arrest our suspects, Nala finds the evidence and sometimes these people hide their phones,” Gill explained. “And flash drives and she, she will use her nose and sniff it out. And it’s amazing to watch her work.”

Like many other agencies, the Seattle task force noticed a sharp increase in cybercrimes targeting children over the past year.

“The threats they can use can sometimes be, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to do this to your family. I’m going to release the pictures that I found of you doing this,’” Gill said. “Kids take selfies right? Sometimes those selfies end up sent to other people and you have a lot of anonymous users online. Sometimes they end up in the hands of criminals who will use them to get more information. More images and whatnot, so, it’s really scary.”

With the evolution in technology over the past two decades, Gill says her office receives an overwhelming amount of online enticement cases.

“Just our office alone, because we’re the ... task force office, each detective will get anywhere from 10 to 15 cases a month, and each of those cases involves hours and hours of work to identify just the suspect,” Gill said. “And once the suspect’s identified, then you have the investigations portion of doing your search warrant.”

Gill said that’s just the beginning.

“We’re talking about 500,000 files to even two million files. Going through those files and identifying each file. So, investigations, each single case can take hours and hours of work,” she said.

“Investigating these types of crimes isn’t your typical law enforcement investigation. It does provide an additional level of training and experience and aptitude to investigate the internet. And not all police departments have that training,” James said.

James said some sextortion cases can be particularly complicated because of the way money changes hands.

“Oftentimes what’s happening is the overseas chatter who is chatting with the victim here in the U.S. If the victim here in the U.S. says, ‘Okay, I will give you money,’ the overseas chatter will say ‘Okay, I want you to reach out to this person, and this email to pay the money.’ And that second person with that new email or new contact information is typically in the U.S. Because it’s much easier to trade money or provide money within the U.S., rather than trade money internationally,” James said.

James added law enforcement is probably only receiving a fraction of sextortion cases, as he believes most people do not know where to turn for help.

“It is my belief that we are not going to investigate or arrest our way out of this particular law enforcement issue. I firmly believe that we have to get the word out to our young men and women. In the schools, to inform them exactly what is occurring out there,” James said.

His team not only tries to educate the public but those in the law enforcement community as well.

“I’ve been trying to do as much as we can, getting the message out to the officers that are responding to these suicides and saying ‘If you’re responding to a teen suicide, you might want to think about collecting some digital evidence. Particularly their cell phone,’” James said.

As for Walker’s father, Brian Montgomery, he has used his son’s tragedy to alert people to the dangers of sextortion across the country. He plans to travel to Washington, D.C. to share Walker’s story with Congress.

“If one person sees this, ten people see this, and the things we’re doing and it changes somebody else, that’s a win. And somebody, a bad guy on the other side of the world just lost one, and we gained one,” Montgomery said.

For more information on how to report a sextortion crime, you can file a cyber tipline report on the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website.

If you or someone you know are experiencing thoughts of suicide, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling, texting or chatting 988. The original hotline number, 1-800-273-8255, is also open. Additional resources can be found at 988lifeline.org