HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – When Ashley Reynolds was 14, a simple online message led to her becoming a victim of sextortion.
“I just remember getting this message that the subject line said something about naked pictures that he has of me,” Reynolds explained.
At first, Reynolds said she ignored the message. But the sender kept sending them, and she became convinced that he did have naked pictures of her.
The only way to keep them from being posted online was to send more.
“It was pure business, it felt like. It was an exchange. I gave him the pictures and I got to keep my reputation.”
Reynolds quickly learned that this wasn’t a one-time deal.
“He was not going to stop, and he was set on sharing my picture with whoever he could to ruin my reputation. I felt like a slave. I had to make sure I had replied to every message,” she shared. “I remember just lying in bed in silence and just thinking. I felt like God was so disappointed in me, and I didn’t know what to do.”
While she felt alone, she wasn’t. She was just another victim of sextortion, a disturbing trend taking over Hampton Roads and the country. It’s gotten so bad the FBI is stepping in.
The FBI defines sextortion as when an adult reaches out to a child online and convinces them to send sexually explicit pictures to the adult by threatening them in some way. Those threats can be anything from posting the pictures online to telling the victim’s parents to even harming themselves.
It’s a very difficult situation for a child to navigate and can make them feel isolated.
“'This only happens to me. I am the only one who fell for this...' they need to know that it is a bigger problem than them,” explained Christina Pullen with the FBI Norfolk Office.
To help raise awareness of sextortion and help children avoid becoming victims, the FBI is partnering with Hampton Roads schools with their "Stop Sextortion" campaign.
“If we can help people understand how this happens, they can avoid becoming a victim of it or having their children become a victim of it,” said Pullen.
Through the campaign, children, parents and teachers are all learning about the risks with being online. The FBI says that often these predators are on the same websites, games and apps that children are.
“A lot of times they convince the child that they are a child of the same age, or they may even say they are an adult - a friendly adult who has the same interests as them.”
It’s why the FBI is warning children to not talk to anyone online who they do not know in person.
“If they don’t have a legit role in your role in your life, you should not be communicating with them online.”
If a child has already become a victim, look for signs in your child’s behavior. Experts say a child’s grades may fall, they could begin spending an excessive amount of time online and they become withdrawn, like Reynolds did.
“I had my nights where I just felt—I really did—I just felt depressed,” she shared.
If you notice any of these signs, encourage your child to talk to you and when they open up, listen without judgement. The FBI stresses that children are victims and cannot get in trouble for their actions.
While it may be difficult for are child to talk about what happened, coming forward will make them feel better than dealing with this alone.
“Just knowing that someone else knows, that someone else is aware, that I am not the only one who knows what I have been doing - it is just bricks off of your back,” said Reynolds.
Coming forward is the first step to find these predators. While it is difficult, the FBI has been able to find these criminals and prosecute them in Hampton Roads and across the country.
The FBI has more resources to help children, parents and teachers learn about sextortion on their website.