CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — A recent influx of scams targeting teenagers prompted Chesterfield County Police to urge parents to keep a closer eye on their children’s devices.
Sergeant Winfred Lewis with Chesterfield County Police Department’s Special Victims team described how these particular scammers prey on young peoples’ fear and embarrassment.
“They’re juveniles,” Lewis explained. “They’re teenagers.”
Typically, when police warn of online scams, they note how scammers target the elderly, who may be less familiar with modernized social media and web technology. However, with this recent wave of scams, the most internet savvy individuals are vulnerable. Victims have been kids as young as 11 or 12 years old.
The scam begins when a “catfish,” a person pretending to be someone they’re not, builds an online relationship with a young teenager. These dangerous relationships are primarily established and cultivated on the social media platforms Snapchat and Instagram.
“It can be anyone on the other side of that computer,” Lewis cautioned. “On the other side of that device.”
Once the online connection reaches a certain level, the scammer will eventually request explicit images from the victimized young person. After the pictures — which generally involve the minor being in a various state of undress — are received, the scammer will essentially blackmail the teen. They’ll demand payment, threatening to publicly release the inappropriate photos to the minor’s friends, followers, and loved ones; if the teenager does not fulfill the financial request. Scammers can request the money through various avenues, but Lewis noted they typically opt for an option involving gift cards.
“A lot of it is gift cards,” Lewis said. “People want you to load gift cards with a certain amount of money and then provide that number to them, so they can utilize that gift card.”
Lewis told 8News that it’s not uncommon for him to see around three or four of these types of cases each week. He noted they’re happening at a concerning rate.
Although local offenders do exist, most of these scammers have been traced to sites outside of the United States. They bank on teenagers being too embarrassed to take the case to authorities or their parents. However, in order for police to minimize the problem, it’s crucial victims report suspicious incidents, regardless of how scary or embarrassing doing so can be. Therefore, Lewis shared a message to young people in the community.
“I know it can be daunting to explain to your parent or explain to your school counselor or School Resource Officer, or report to police what happened,” Lewis said. “But understand, if this happens to you, you are a victim of a crime. This is something that is regularly done. You are not alone.”