Sextortion schemes on the rise as artificial intelligence advances

SOUTH CAROLINA — Like technology, scammers and criminals are advancing in ways they target teens online, thanks to artificial intelligence.

These recent advancements have caused a spike in sextortion cases across the Carolinas.

In Rock Hill, police announced this week they arrested a man they accused of releasing private photos of a woman and then threatened to release more if she didn’t pay him.

That man is now facing a sexual exploitation charge.

Investigators say they are getting more and more of these reports and in many of these cases, the victims are children. According to the FBI, sexual extortion happens when someone threatens to share another person’s private, personal materials.

As the sextortion scheme continues to grow, so does its impact.

South Carolina state Rep. Brandon Guffey lost his son, Gavin after he was the victim of sextortion.

Guffey says Gavin was a kind, smart, and talented young man with a bright future, but after becoming a target of sextortion online his world turned dark.

One night, it became too much for Gavin, and he ended his life.

“I ran to the bathroom, yelled his name, and couldn’t hear anything. I kicked in the door and he was lying in between the tub and the toilet,” Guffey said.

In just a few moments, sextortion had cut another young life short. Guffey said he learned of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, Gavin was blackmailed.

“Within 24 hours, I was informed that he was being blackmailed ... and I thought what could you have done that’s so bad that would cause you to take your life,” Guffey said.

After more information was brought to light, Guffey learned his son had been targeted by scammers. These criminals began extorting Gavin, by threatening to share nude images to hurt his political career.

In response to losing his son, Guffey fought back with the creation of “Gavin’s Law”, which makes the crime of sextortion a felony in South Carolina.

“I feel like I lost that fight in protecting my child,” Guffey said. “But what I want to do is just make sure no other parent has to go through this.”

Currently, the FBI is tracking these incidents. Scammers contact victims on social media, normally through direct messaging, and eventually convince them to send inappropriate photos.

“You now get a message saying you either send me a gift card or some sort of transaction, or we’re going to send this to all of your friends,” Thomas McAfee with the FBI said.

FBI reports show that from 2021 to 2022 there has been a 200% increase in sextortion cases in South Carolina and a 600% increase in North Carolina.

Experts say new technology like artificial intelligence will help scammers expedite sextortion even more.

“Whether it’s social media or from other sites where they can get a photo of that individual that they are targeting and use deepfake generators, using fake images or fake videos of that person to put them in a compromising situation,” Willis McDonald said.

Many of the criminals or crime rings associated with sextortion are located overseas.

“So the things like ChatGPT will make their ability to interact with a victim a little bit cleaner and sound more legitimate,” McAfee said.

Although there are many ways to protect yourself. McAfee says you can use websites like tineye.com and reverse image search on Google to check if you’re pictures have been used anywhere else.

Guffey says he is ready to take on the new frontier of crimes and artificial intelligence. He is hopeful that once South Carolina passes stricter laws, other states will follow suit, in turn forcing digital companies to make changes.

“I’m coming for you, not just you, anyone like you,” Guffey said, “You come after our children, I don’t care if it’s this state, this country, anywhere in this world, it is my passion.”

In honor of Gavin, Guffey has started a nonprofit known as Less Than 3 to raise awareness for teen mental health. For more information, click here.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has introduced a project called Take It Down. It’s a movement to remove nude photos from the internet, click here to learn more.

(WATCH BELOW: SC Gov signs sextortion bill after death of representative’s son)