DENVER — Colorado authorities are seeing a rise in "sextortion," and say juveniles are especially at risk.
Sextortion happens when a scammer convinces someone to send explicit photos, then blackmails them with those photos, according to Matt Peterson, supervisory agent in Homeland Security Investigation's Denver division.
In 2020, HSI received roughly 25 tips related to sextortion cases. In just the first five months of 2022, the agency has received more than 200 tips.
"I think in general, [scammers are] targeting juveniles far more often than adults, but we have seen adults targeted as well," Peterson said.
HSI Denver partners with Aurora Police Department's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Unit and other agencies to form the Colorado Cyber Guardian Task Force. The multi-agency effort discovered many sextortion cases stem from predators overseas, according to Peterson.
An undercover detective with Aurora police's ICAC Unit says he's helped investigate 12 sextortion cases this year alone.
"It seems like our cases have skyrocketed since COVID," the detective said. "I think you have kids who were on the internet a lot more, they're staying home. People in the workforce, these pedophiles and predators, are staying home more."
Peterson isn't sure what's fueling the uptick, but believes profits could be a factor.
"These victims, they don't want themselves exposed to the world, so they're willing to pay money if they can," he said. "So I think like so many other scams, it works."
The only way for teens and adults to protect themselves is to be leery of online strangers.
"The scammer will meet the kid or an adult [online], and very quickly it turns sexual, and then very quickly, it goes to, "I want to send you a nude (image). Will you send me a nude?" And that should be a red flag," the undercover detective said.
In May, a 17-year-old's death by suicide made headlines after investigators discovered the teen had been a victim of sextortion.
One Denver man shared his story with Denver7 on the condition of anonymity. He says he became a victim of sextortion this past weekend.
"Essentially, I met someone on a dating app, you know, talked a bit there and then started texting," the man said.
The texting quickly escalated.
"They sent some pictures and asked for some in return and this is not really something I normally do," he said.
The man sent photos back, a decision he deeply regrets.
"Pictures that I wouldn't really want people to see," he said.
Soon after, he was blackmailed with those photos.
"[The scammer] had pictures of all my social media, just pages of screen grabs of all my followers and friends on there, and they wanted $1,000," the man said.
He says he paid the money through a combination of Zelle deposits and gift cards.
The man has since reported the situation to the Denver Police Department, but he knows his money is long gone.
"I don't want others to fall victim," he said, still visibly shaken from the ordeal.
If you or someone you know believes they're a victim of sextortion, you can report it through Homeland Security's website or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's website.