(NEW YORK) — Brandon Guffey’s 17-year-old son Gavin died by suicide after he said Gavin fell victim to a sexual extortion scheme online, and now he’s fighting to protect other kids from this crime.
Sexual extortion, or “sextortion,” is a form of blackmail where victims are lured into sending explicit images online and then threatened to do something they don’t want to do, like send more photos or money.
“I tell people all the time, Gavin was not depressed,” Guffey told ABC News. “He was, in my opinion, living his best life before he took his own.”
Now, the Republican state lawmaker from Rock Hill, South Carolina, is pushing through a piece of legislation (H 3583) that would criminalize sextortion in the state. It passed the state house and senate and will head to the governor’s desk soon.
Under the proposed law, perpetrators who extort minors or at-risk adults could face up to 20 years in prison. According to Guffey, elevating these crimes to felonies will also give law enforcement the ability to cross state lines to chase down alleged perpetrators.
An increase in reported cases
Thorn, an organization dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children, started tracking this type of online grooming pre-pandemic and said it saw a “dramatic increase in reports” during the pandemic and in recent months.
Between 2019 and 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said the number of reports made to its organization involving the sextortion of children or teens more than doubled.
“I don’t know that we necessarily armed our children with the tools that they needed to be safe in the face of this type of extortion or built our platforms in a way that would create a safe environment,” Thorn’s CEO Julie Cordua told ABC News.
In early 2023, the FBI issued a national public safety alert regarding an “explosion in incidents of children and teens being coerced.” According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies saw 3,000 minor victims targeted in 2022, with the majority of them being boys.
In most reported cases, experts said the first contact is made through social media where young male victims are led to believe they are exchanging messages with a girl their own age.
Guffey told ABC News that Gavin received an Instagram message on July 27, 2022, from an account posing as a teenage girl, just around midnight. About an hour-and-a-half after that first contact, Gavin took his own life.
“I refused to believe it at first. There’s no way that he could have been under that much stress that quickly that it would have caused this decision,” Guffey said.
In the weeks following Gavin’s funeral, Guffey said various family members received dozens of threatening Instagram messages demanding money to keep the explicit images private. That’s when Guffey connected the dots and uncovered what had pushed his son to suicide.
“Did I tell you your son begged for his life,” read one of the Instagram messages, according to Guffey.
Gavin’s case is still under investigation by local law enforcement, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the FBI, and Homeland Security.
“We support legislation that empowers law enforcement to pursue those who commit the heinous act of sextortion and applaud Representative Guffey’s efforts on this bill. No family should ever have to experience a tragedy like this,” a Meta spokesperson told ABC News. “We want teens to have a safe experience on our apps, and we’ve built technology and tools to help protect our users from criminals and scammers of this kind.”
“We encourage teens and adults to report suspicious or harmful content, activity or accounts in our apps if they feel unsafe, and we take action and will reach out to law enforcement in cases of imminent harm. Teens can also use NCMEC’s Take It Down, a new tool we supported that helps prevent young people’s intimate images from being posted online in the future,” Meta’s statement continued.
Experts said the number of young victims impacted is likely much larger than reported because many do not come forward.
“I believe we’ve got to start wearing our shame as adults if we want our kids to understand that it’s okay,” to ask for help, said Guffey, who decided with his wife to share Gavin’s story in order to raise public awareness.
And that’s exactly what happened when Christina and Jason Scheffer, from Huson, Montana, heard about Gavin’s case.
Their son, Waylon Scheffer, was just 16 years old when they say scammers drove him to take his own life on Dec. 14, 2022. The Scheffers said talking with Guffey helped them understand the intricacies of how scammers used social media to prey on their own teenage boys.
“I got your nude,” reads one of the threatening messages sent to Waylon and reviewed by ABC News. “I will start sending your nude and put it on the newspaper, and make sure I make life miserable for you.”
Waylon’s case is still under investigation by local law enforcement.
Waylon and Gavin are among the more than a dozen American teenage boys who have lost their lives after being threatened and extorted online this past year, said the FBI.
“The best advice that I give that I think to give parents is to not allow your children to have any of their devices in private rooms such as bathrooms and bedrooms,” Guffey said.
Out of the darkness
“The greatest harm will be if the perpetrator wins because the child is ashamed and afraid,” Cordua said.
She told ABC News that creating a blame-free space will help your child feel safe enough to come forward if something goes wrong.
“Talk about this stuff,” agreed Jason Scheffer, who had spoken to his son on multiple occasions about these types of scams.
And since Waylon’s passing, Scheffer said his school will introduce a phone safety training class for both parents and students.
As part of Guffey’s bill, school districts will also be required to educate students about sextortion on an annual basis.
“This is the best part of the bill, in my opinion, because the hardest thing to do is to raise awareness to get parents and students talking about this,” said Guffey.
What about the platforms
Experts said disappearing messages on WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat create a false sense of security. Because of these features, a teen may feel more comfortable sharing an explicit image, but experts said scammers often record the conversation.
Snapchat and Instagram notify users if another user takes screenshots or screen-recording their chat, but this doesn’t stop perpetrators from finding workarounds.
“Any form of sexual exploitation is abhorrent and illegal and we have dedicated teams that work closely with authorities, experts, and industry partners to combat it,” a Snapchat spokesperson told ABC News.
“We have extra protections in place on Snapchat for under 18s that make it harder for them to be discovered and contacted by people they don’t know,” the spokesperson added.
Cordua said that platforms are sitting on troves of data that could help inform how to add more protections for all users. For example, if an account is flagged by multiple users, especially young users, that should raise a flag on the platform side.
“There’s a pattern in this data, and so platforms have the ability to see what is happening and identify where the risk factors are on their platform,” she added.
Cordua said they could consider adding a few more “road bumps” that would help pull young people out of conversations with adults.
Parents said they want to see the platforms do more to protect their children from online predators.
“I firmly believe they are letting this terrorism happen across their platform,” said Jason Scheffer. “They’re not doing anything about it.”
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
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