A 17-year-old boy died hours after being scammed by suicide. The FBI says it’s part of a disturbing surge in sextortion cases.

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to contact a trained counselor or visit the NSPL site.



CNN

Ryan Last received a message from someone he thought was a girl one school evening in February.

Within hours, the 17-year-old straight-A student and boy scout had died by suicide.

“Someone reached out to him pretending to be a girl, and they started a conversation,” his mother, Pauline Stuart, told CNN. considered going to college after high school.

The online conversation quickly became intimate and then turned criminal.

The scammer — posing as a young girl — sent Ryan a nude photo and asked Ryan to share an explicit image of himself in return. Immediately after Ryan shared an intimate photo of him, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000 and threatened to make the photo public and send it to Ryan’s family and friends.

Ryan Last.

The teen from San Jose, California, told the cybercriminal he couldn’t pay the full amount, and the demand was eventually reduced to a fraction of the original amount: $150. But after paying the scammers out of his savings, Stuart said : “They kept demanding more and more and constantly put pressure on him.”

Stuart knew nothing of what her son was going through at the time. She learned the details after law enforcement reconstructed the events leading up to his death.

She had said goodnight to Ryan at 10 p.m. and described him as her usually happy son. At 2 a.m., he had been ripped off and killed. Ryan left a suicide note describing how ashamed he was of himself and the family.

“He really, really thought at the time that there was no way to make ends meet if those photos were actually posted online,” Pauline said. “His note showed that he was absolutely terrified. No child should be so scared.”

Law enforcement officers are calling the scam “sextortion,” and investigators have seen an explosion in victim complaints, prompting the FBI to launch a campaign to warn parents from coast to coast.

The agency says there were more than 18,000 complaints about sextortion in 2021, with losses exceeding $13 million. The FBI says that criminals’ use of child pornography to lure suspects is also a serious crime.

The investigation into Last’s case is still ongoing, Stuart and the FBI tell CNN.

“To be a criminal who specifically targets children — it’s one of the deeper breaches of trust I think in society,” said FBI Superintendent Special Agent Dan Costin, who leads a team of investigators who work to combat crimes against children.

According to Costin, many of the sextortion scams reported to the FBI come from criminals across the African continent and Southeast Asia. Federal investigators are working with their law enforcement officers around the world, Costin said, to help identify and arrest perpetrators who target children online.

Ryan Last and his mother, Pauline Stuart.

A challenge for the FBI: Many sextortion victims fail to report the incidents to the police.

“The embarrassing part of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles the victims have to overcome,” Costin said. “It can be a lot, especially at that moment.”

But investigators are urging victims to contact police quickly, either online or at their local FBI office.

Medical experts say there’s an important reason why young men are especially vulnerable to sextortion-related scams.

“Teenagers’ brains are still developing,” says Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of pediatrics at Mass General in Boston. “So when something catastrophic happens, like a personal photo released to people online, it’s hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the grand scheme of things, they’re going to get through this.”

Hadland said there are steps parents can take to protect their children from harm online.

“The most important thing parents should do with their teen is try to understand what they are doing online,” she said. “You want to know when they go online, who they communicate with, which platforms they use. Are they approached by people they don’t know, do they feel pressure to share information or photos?”

Hadland said it’s also critical that parents specifically warn teens about scams like sextortion, without putting them to shame.

“You want to make it clear that they can talk to you if they’ve done something, or if they feel like they’ve made a mistake,” he said.

Ryan’s mother agrees.

“You need to talk to your kids because we need to make them aware of it,” Stuart said.

She still mourns the loss of her son, channels her family’s pain into action, and honors Ryan by speaking out and telling his story. She hopes this will save lives.

“How can these people look at themselves in the mirror knowing that $150 is more important than a child’s life?” she says. “To me there is no word other than ‘bad’ that they care much more about money than they care about a child’s life. I don’t want anyone else to go through what we did.”

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