AARP’s free online peer support group for victims of scams — ReST — is a safe space where victims of scams, and/or their loved ones, can turn to for emotional support for themselves and others in similar situations. More information about the program is available on www.aarp.org/fraudsupport.
I sat at my work computer, temporarily situated at the end of the dining room table, pecking away at some mundane report or another when my son, who’d just turned 18, came flying down the stairs.
“Mom, I did something bad,” he said.
One glance over my monitor told me everything I needed to know. He stood near the other end of the table, eyes cast downward, rocking from left foot to right foot and wringing his hands. He has adopted that same body language when he has done something he knows he shouldn’t have since he first walked.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh God, Mom, I messed up bad,” he said, voice cracking and filled with despair.
I maintained a level demeanor, but inside I was on fire. The last time I heard his voice full of that much shame, sadness and self-loathing, he had totaled my car.
“I sent a girl a picture. And now they’re telling me if I don’t send them $200, they’re going to send it to all of my Insta followers.”
My head was spinning a little. “What kind of picture?”
Yep, it was that kind.
My son was in tears, “I’m so f***ing stupid!” he wailed, practically swinging from foot-to-foot now. “I hate myself!”
“Hold on,” I said, trying to get a grasp of the situation. “Who’s ‘they’?”
“After I sent the picture, these guys sent me a screenshot of it and started threatening me, demanding I send them $200,” he said. “Oh my God, what am I gonna do?! They’re gonna send it to all of my friends!”
“These guys” are called sextortionists, I later learned, and they target teenage boys on social media platforms. They lure them in by pretending to be a beautiful woman — fake account and all — and then, when the timing is right, ask them for a “dick pic.” Once sent, the blackmail begins and they unleash all sorts of malice against their unwitting prey to wring as much money out of them as possible.
And they had their claws in my beautiful baby boy.
So, I used my phone to take images of the venomous messages they were sending to his phone, at a pace of about 10 every minute, while simultaneously calling the police and texting my husband.
The first thing the police wanted to know was my son’s age. Had he been a minor, the perpetrators, whom the cops were confident they could trace through IP addresses, would be arrested on child pornography charges. But since he was a few weeks on the other side of that milestone, the best they could do was open a case against them for the threats and attempted extortion. A case that could eventually be brought to trial, with photo after photo of my son’s penis entered into evidence for the whole world to see. And since he was 18, his identity wouldn’t be protected.
“I’m so stupid,” my son repeated while we talked to the police officer via speaker phone.
“You aren’t stupid. You did a stupid thing,” I told him. “There’s a difference.”
Ultimately, we reported the sextortionists to the various platforms through which they’d contacted my son, and blocked them — which stopped the threats from streaming in. We said many little prayers that the image in question, which had elements in it that would clearly identify my son, wouldn’t end up plastered all over Instagram. And they didn’t.
It was about five months later when I read an article on nbcnews.com ("Sextortionists are increasingly targeting young men for money. The outcome can be deadly”) that I realized what had happened to my son was part of a larger effort, mainly by foreign operations scheming to siphon money from young men — just like my son — who did one small, insignificant, stupid thing. But some of those young men being blackmailed resorted to suicide to save themselves and their families from the shame their tormentors threatened.
I grieve for them, and with their parents and siblings.
And I try not to wonder how close my son came to caving into the demands of the extortionists who targeted him that night. Or what he would have done when they doubled down on him after receiving the first payment, demanding more and more money until he had none left to give. I just thank the universe that he knew he could come to me when he was in trouble — and trusted that I could help him find a way out. It’s a lesson I hope he carries with him for the rest of his life.
This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.