Sextortion of children rising in Hawaii and nation, authorities say


A surge in cases of children being groomed into sharing compromising photos with strangers who then extort them for money or more images has prompted law enforcement to remind parents to monitor online activity.

Sextortion, a crime that lacks a specific federal statute but is being aggressively investigated and prosecuted with existing laws, is on the rise in Hawaii and across the country, law enforcement and nonprofit organizations told the Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser.


Last year, the National Center for Missing &Exploited Children’s Cyber ­Tipline received 186,819 reports of online enticement, the category that includes sextortion.

Between 2021 and 2023, the number of online enticement reports increased by 323%, according to the center.

Criminals use gaming platforms, social media, and dating and video chat applications to reach their young victims and use “any number of ploys — from pretending to be a romantic interest, flattery and attention, offers of money or other items of value, or threats” to coerce the child to produce an explicit image, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Sextortion describes a crime in which an offender “coerces a minor to create and send sexually explicit images or video.”

“After receiving the sexually explicit content from the child, the offender threatens to release that compromising material unless the victim produces additional explicit material,” according to the FBI. “In these cases, the offenders are motivated by the sexual gratification they receive from the content.”

Financially motivated sextortion “follows a similar pattern with a different goal.” After receiving the sexually explicit material, the offender “threatens to release the compromising material unless the victim provides payment — often as gift cards, mobile payment services, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency.”

The offenders are primarily motivated by financial gain, according to the FBI.

Criminals who engage in financially motivated sextortion are often located outside the United States “primarily in west African countries such as Nigeria and Ivory Coast, or Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines.”

Between October 2022 and March 2023, the FBI “observed an increase in reporting of financially motivated sextortion incidents involving minor victims compared to the same period the previous year, of greater than 20%.”

Steven Merrill, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Honolulu division, told the Star-Advertiser that sextortion is on the rise in Hawaii and across the country.

Criminals have more ways to access children than ever before, Merrill noted, with the proliferation of gaming networks, social media, mobile phones and other devices tied to online networks.

“In addition to the children being victimized … some of them have suffered such a devastating mental loss that they’ve killed themselves. And sometimes we don’t find out about these cases until it’s too late,” Merrill said.

He noted that kids use online gaming platforms to compete with strangers from all over the world.

“Now, kids are using headphones, they are wearing goggles and they are networked to other players, other people who now have a voice in their head, something that never existed before,” said Merrill.

Once the perpetrator has a single image or video, they will use “threats of exposure or other means of coercion” to make the child produce more images and explicit material, according to FBI.

In many instances, the abusers will demand money in exchange for ensuring the photos are not published online, shaming the victim.

Merrill said there is no “encompassing, blanket federal law against this, which is problematic.”

“But that does not diminish, in any way, our zest for these investigations, and we will charge whatever we can charge,” he said.

In February a 33-year-old Kaneohe man was sentenced to 40 years in federal prison for grooming four minor girls online to make sex films, and possessing child pornography involving kids as young as 4.

After Daniel Michael Brito, 33, gets out of federal prison, he will remain on supervised release for the rest of his life. Brito also will pay $3,000 to each of the four young girls he victimized.

Brito, aka John Michael Brito, was convicted in state court in 2018 of third-degree sex assault, a Class C felony, after he had sexual contact with a minor.

The investigation into Brito began after an electronic device from a 14-year-old runaway contained evidence that he was pimping an 8-year-old girl for hotel sex parties, showers and sex with his neighbor.

In December, a Kaneohe man entered a guilty plea in federal court after FBI agents in New York discovered he was using an elaborate online marketplace to traffic in child pornography.

Casey Young allegedly swapped images with pedophiles in an online file-sharing community, according to a federal criminal complaint. Young is charged with one count of distribution of child pornography and faces up to 20 years in federal prison if convicted.

He entered a plea of guilty as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Honolulu Police Department Cpl. Johnny Taflinger, the acting sergeant of the human trafficking detail in the Narcotics /Vice Division, told the Star-Advertiser that adults and children are susceptible to extortion if they share provocative images on social media or in online networks with strangers they meet.

Police receive, on average, a tip a day about a child or adult being victimized and possibly extorted online.

He said online criminals are a lot smarter than victims realize and use virtual private networks, protected online communities, burner accounts and other tactics to evade law enforcement and disguise their identity.

“Once you put your picture online, it’s gone, it’s all over the world. (Criminals can ) crop it, face app it, put different body parts on it ; these hackers are way better than us and a lot smarter (online ),” said Taflinger. “They think of a lot of different ways to extort people.”

HPD deals with many cases “that involve grooming of children online.”

“Use common sense. Don’t put photos or pictures out there or personal information out there. It’s really hard. People now days all think they know what they are doing, but these hackers know a lot more than we do,” said Taflinger. “It’s crazy … parents have to be creative and look at what their kids are doing.”

Amanda Leonard, coordinator of the Missing Child Center Hawaii, part of the Crime Prevention &Justice Assistance Division of the state Department of the Attorney General, told the Star-Advertiser that “if they’ve (children ) gone missing in response to sextortion, that is a very negative consequence.”

“Just being a child or a teenager makes them vulnerable. These perpetrators are intentionally trying to make them feel isolated … trapped without any regard for their safety or well being,” Leonard said. “The damage to these child victims is not just financial.”

Kids who fall victim to sextortion could engage in “high-risk behavior” and harm themselves, run away from home or commit suicide, she said. Teenage boys have been the “most common targets” but anyone can fall prey to online predators seeking compromising information and images.

“Make sure kids know to never meet (in person ) anyone they meet online unless parents are aware and consented,” she said. “The biggest danger, they meet someone they met online believing they are a friend.”

Leonard likened monitoring online activity to locking the doors to a house at night to keep kids safe.

“Parents are justified for making rules for online activity. Children may not realize the dangers, they think they are just playing their games. There are those perpetrators out there that could financially extort them; why would any child think that? It’s really on us (parents and guardians ) … to set the rules and boundaries so they are better protected. The best way to prevent abuse is through education.”

Clare E. Connors, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii, told the Star-Advertiser that “professional criminals seeking perverse sexual gratification or financial gain continue to prey on our children, making them feel isolated, shamed and vulnerable.”

“The Department of Justice is acutely concerned about these increasing threats on social media platforms, in game rooms and everywhere children find themselves interacting in the virtual world,” said Connors. “While we will do our job as law enforcement to investigate matters that come to our attention, every child — indeed every person — should know they are never so alone or so stuck in an online engagement that they cannot seek help. Whenever contacted, no matter if it is the first or fifth time, they should inform a parent, a teacher, a friend or law enforcement to obtain advice and assistance before responding.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email