ST. LOUIS – There’s a new warning from the FBI’s St. Louis office about a frightening sex crime trend targeting local teenage boys, called sextortion.

Predators are getting to their victims through the victims’ cellphones and not just through traditional social media channels like Instagram or Snapchat. Gaming apps or any app with a chat function are susceptible.

The FBI reports they are getting new cases in the St. Louis area every single week.

It starts with seemingly innocent messages during online gaming or chatting, according to Special Agent in Charge Jay Greenberg.

“They’re being extorted because these predators believe that they’ll be more likely to pay,” he said. “We’re getting several referrals a week, actually, in St. Louis and surrounding areas, for minor victims who are being sextorted for additional images and/or for money.”

Greenberg described a scenario investigators typically see: a predator poses as another teen or young adult, eventually sends illicit photos, and asks the victim for photos in return.

Upon receiving illicit photos from the victim, the predator then threatens to send the photos to victim’s school, family, friends, or to post them online, unless the victim pays small amounts of $5 to $25. So far, St. Louis-area victims and parents have been reluctant to go public.

Pauline Stuart of California wants parents to stay vigilant and active with their children’s online activities, after what happened to her son, Ryan.

“He just couldn’t handle the pressure, so he took his life,” Stuart said.

After initial demand of $5,000 from a predator in May, Ryan paid $150. There was a demand for more. Ryan committed suicide. He was 17.

Ryan Stuart was one of more than a dozen victims to do so in the past year, according to the FBI. A suspect was arrested last month. The FBI reports at least 3,000 U.S. victims in the past year, with most of the schemes originating in West Africa.

“These kids are living in fear every day. They may be told when they wake up they have to send an image of video. Before they go to bed they have to send an image or video. As soon as they’re out of school, they have to send an image or video,” Greenberg said. “This is not a single drop in the bucket. This is a constant victimization of our kids. We really need to get our kids and let them know: if you make a mistake, that’s ok.”

Contacting law enforcement is a sure way to make it stop, he said.

To get help, you call 1-800-CALL-FBI or file a report online.

Meanwhile, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers help in getting sexually-exploitive material taken down from online sources.

For more information

FBI: Common scams and crimes – Sextortion
Missing Kids: Is your explicit content out there?