‘Chelsea’ Asked for Nude Photos. Then the Extortion Began.

Young men are being tricked into sending naked pictures to scammers pretending to be women — who then demand money. The consequences can be devastating.

The Instagram message popped up from a girl named Chelsea: “Howdy.”

David didn’t know anyone named Chelsea, but he clicked through her profile: She had brown hair and a nice smile; under her name was a quote from the Bible. He thought it was sort of weird that she was messaging him, a stranger, in the middle of a workday, but her pouty selfies made that easy to ignore.

He was hesitant when she asked him to chat, but soon her flirty messages escalated to a volley of explicit pictures, and David, a 32-year-old pharmacy technician, got carried away. When she asked him for a nude, he hardly thought twice, he said. He slipped into the bathroom at the New Jersey hospital where he works, took a picture and hit send.

Within seconds, the threats began.

David’s phone lit up with messages: pictures he had sent with his genitals exposed alongside screenshots of his Instagram followers with whom he shares a last name — his family. “She said: I’m demanding $500, if not I’m going to send it to all of these people,” said David, who asked that only his middle name be used to protect his privacy. “Then she started a countdown.”

But there was no Chelsea. The real person behind the account, David said, was a man who, over the course of three fraught days, inadvertently revealed he was in Nigeria as he demanded hundreds of dollars to keep David’s pictures private. As he paid up, David joined the thousands of people cowed under a new scam that has exploded over the past three years to become the fastest-growing cybercrime, according to both the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security.

Called financial sextortion, it is a uniquely modern riff on the romance scams of yesteryear in which the lonely were seduced into parting with their money by people posing as suitors. In other versions of the scheme that focus on women and girls, explicit images are typically coerced for sexual gratification or to be sold as pornography. This new iteration preys on young men and teenage boys, and the images are held as ransom — often for as little as a few hundred dollars, to be paid typically through cryptocurrency or even gift cards from the sender.

But cybercrime agencies caution not to be deceived by the seemingly small stakes. Many victims caught in this scam are minors — of the 13,000 reports of financial sextortion the F.B.I. received between October 2021 to March 2023, a vast majority of them involved boys. And though David’s dealings with “Chelsea” cost him $750 (as well as spiraling anxiety and a deep sense of humiliation), the consequences for young boys can be devastating. According to the F.B.I., between January 2021 and July 2023, at least 20 teenagers, when faced with the threat that an embarrassing photo would ruin their lives, have killed themselves.

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