Scripps News Investigates

Sextortion survivor kept secret for years until FBI tracked her down

Jessica, who is now 21, said she first started exchanging messages with the online predator when she was 14.

Sextortion survivor kept secret for years until FBI tracked her down
Scripps News
SMS

For about four years, Jessica kept a dark secret from the people she loved the most.  

She had taken a revealing photo and sent it to an online predator who was threatening to hurt her mother if Jessica didn’t comply.  

Scripps News is not reporting her full name, at her request. 

“I took the threat seriously, and I sent one picture,” she said. “It didn’t have any identifying features in it ... that one picture was all that he had, and that was all he needed to blackmail me for the next four years.” 

Jessica, who is now 21, said she first started exchanging messages with the online predator when she was 14. At the time, she said she believed she was messaging with a teen boy from New York who had an older sister who played lacrosse. 

“He started off by saying, ‘You’re really beautiful. I love talking to you,’ you know, that love bombing. And then he asked for an initial picture, and I said no, and I blocked him from there.”   

Jessica said the person created another account, however, and reached out to her again to apologize.  

She said he continued asking for an explicit photo over the course of several months.  

She eventually gave in when he threatened to harm her mother. 

“It was as awful as it would seem,” she told Scripps News.  “I was constantly in that stage of fight or flight, and I do have PTSD because of it.” 

Instead of calling the police to report the crime, Jessica said she allowed the blackmailing to continue for years and was prepared to take her secret to the grave.  

She said she did not want to tarnish the positive image she had within her family by telling anyone she knew. 

“(My mom) looked at me like I’m her sweet little girl. I’m her baby. And I was always the perfect daughter in the sense that I came home, and I did my schoolwork right away. I was in extracurriculars. I was applying for really good colleges, and I had a great group of friends. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs,” Jessica said.  “I didn’t ever want to do anything that disappointed my mom or family.” 

But one day, the secret came out. 

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Jessica said FBI agents arrived at her house to say they had identified her as one of several victims in a child sextortion scheme perpetrated by a Virginia man who had finally been arrested. 

Sextortion is increasing, according to the FBI

The crime, also called sextortion, is a "growing threat,” according to the FBI. The agency’s field offices have been sending out press releases this month, urgently warning the public that sexual exploitation crimes involving financial extortion are also increasing. 

“It’s a significant and pervasive threat against our children, and we’re seeing it nationwide,” said Mark Michalek, the special agent in charge of the FBI field office overseeing Colorado and Wyoming.  

Police in Aurora, Colorado, for example, are investigating a January incident involving students at multiple middle and high schools.  

According to Joe Moylan, a spokesperson for the Aurora Police Department, investigators have identified seven “direct victims,” including three who said their own explicit photos were used against them.  

Some students, Moylan said, received threats that their explicit videos or images could be released if they refused to pay a fee. And other kids received messages inviting them to pay to view explicit photos or videos.  

One video, Moylan said, seemed to feature a physical fight between unknown individuals at an unknown location rather than anything sexual. 

Moylan said the detectives are working with Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and local internet providers to identify IP addresses and those responsible for the crimes. 

Michalek would not comment on the Colorado case, but said financial sextortion seems to more frequently target young men. 

“For financially motivated sextortion, we’re seeing boys primarily targeted between 14 and 17,” said Michalek. More likely than not the perpetrators live overseas, primarily in Nigeria, the Philippines and the Ivory Coast, he said. 

“The financially motivated sextortion is a scheme to make money. They don’t care about the content of the images; they’re using it as a means to make money. One theory is that they’re targeting boys a little older because they may be more embarrassed. They may recognize that their behavior was inappropriate and are less likely to report it to authorities,” said Michalek. 

He said the FBI believes at least 20 people have died by suicide in recent years as a result of sextortion schemes. 

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Michalek cited the suicide of a Jordan DeMay, a 17-year-old boy from Michigan, as one example in which the accused perpetrators lived overseas, in Lagos, Nigeria. Authorities allege that DeMay killed himself when he couldn’t pay the fees the perpetrators were demanding. 

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the group’s CyberTipline received more than 20,000 reports for financial sextortion in 2023.  

Scripps News found many sextortion cases that also involved perpetrators who were trusted adults whose primary motivation did not appear to be financial gain. 

For example, a New Mexico basketball coach, Josh Rico, was sentenced last year to 30 years in prison for coercing students to send him sexually explicit photos and to engage in sex acts with him.   

“In each case, Rico used one or both of his fake profiles to persuade the victims into sending compromising photos, then used the threat of exposing the photos to coerce the victims into engaging in sexual acts and sending him videos of the acts. In two instances, after using a fake profile to demand that the victims engage in sexual acts and provide videos, he offered to ‘help’ the victims by allowing them to perform the sexual act with him. Rico coerced at least one of the victims into engaging in sexual acts with him,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Mexico. 

In Missouri, a high school business teacher, Brandon McCullough, threatened to expose explicit photos to children’s family members and friends over social media if they did not send him additional photos, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Missouri. 

McCullough received a 30-year prison sentence. 

Filippo Parlagreco, a Navy veteran, according to court records, received a 31-year prison sentence after investigators discovered he was posing as a teenager, demanding sexually explicit photographs from children and threatening to expose them if they did not send more. 

Jessica, who now consults with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said she was one of Parlagreco’s victims. 

“I think deep down in our gut, we do know when something is safe and when something is unsafe,” she said. “If I could do it again, I would have come forward much sooner.”  

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Jessica said she advises teens to file a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline.  

If someone is threatening you online, she said, “don’t even bother taking the picture ... It’s not hard for somebody to hack into your social media and take those pictures and use them against you,” she said. 

“Find your safe person and tell somebody. It doesn’t always have to be an adult. If your safe person is your best friend, your cousin – just tell somebody, and let somebody know what’s going on because you don’t have to go through it alone,” she said. 

Jessica said she also had advice for parents. 

“The biggest thing that I wish somebody had done for me is to personally sit me down, one-on-one, and say, ‘You know, you're getting to the age where you're becoming curious and you're meeting new people. If anything ever happens, I want you to come to me and know that I'm going to support you, and I'm going to do whatever you need me to do, and I'm not going to judge you. I'm still going to love you, and I'm still going to care for you, and you're still going to remain who you are in my eyes. But I'll help you through it, and I'll give you that choice and make sure that you consent to everything that we do moving forward and that you have control of that,’” she said. 

If you need to talk to someone, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 or text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. 

Resources 

NCMEC has a mechanism for minors to remove sexually explicit photos and videos from online spaces.

The website Take It Down allows users to anonymously get help removing the images. A similar site for adults also exists.