The FBI is sounding the alarm on the disturbing new trend of criminals using artificial-intelligence-generated images, or “deepfakes,” to extort individuals for money or sex.
According to FBI statistics, there was a 322% increase in reported sextortion cases in the period between February 2022 and February 2023.
Law enforcement attributed the rise to the use of AI-doctored images, which have made it increasingly difficult to discern manipulated content from reality.
Sextortion, a crime in which an online predator tricks victims into providing them nude images, and then demands money or more images, has seen a sharp increase in cases since the onset of the pandemic.
From 2021 to 2022 alone, the FBI recorded a staggering 463% rise in reported sextortion cases. The recent emergence of open-source AI tools has further facilitated the process for predators, simplifying the creation of realistic and deceptive images.
The FBI warned that malicious actors are utilizing content manipulation technologies and services to exploit innocent pictures and videos sourced from social media accounts, the open internet or even requested from the victims themselves.
The materials are then transformed into sexually-themed images that closely resemble the victims, making them difficult to distinguish from genuine content.
These doctored images are then circulated on social media, public forums or pornographic websites, often without the victims’ knowledge.
Predators, typically located in different countries, employ these AI-generated images to coerce victims, especially juveniles, into providing money or more explicit images. The FBI reports that many victims, including minors, remain unaware that their images have been copied, manipulated and circulated until someone else brings it to their attention.
Tragically, at least a dozen sextortion-related suicides have been reported across the country, with males between the ages of 10 and 17 being the primary targets.
The FBI acknowledged that while girls have also been victimized, the statistics indicate that a higher percentage of boys are falling prey to these crimes.
One tragic case involved 17-year-old Gavin Guffey, who committed suicide after being lured into a sextortion scheme. Guffey received a message from someone impersonating a girl on Instagram, and their communication escalated until demands for money led to deadly consequences.
Alicia Kozak, an internet safety expert and survivor of sexual abuse, underlined the devastating impact of sextortion on today’s teens.
“I speak in schools, and every single school I’ve spoken in has had several sextortion victims and nearly all of the communities have had a child die by suicide as a result of sextortion and the threats, shame and fear that go along with it,” Kozak said.
She warned that AI-generated deepfakes have become increasingly realistic and prevalent, heightening the dangers faced by young individuals who often pursue social media influencer status and fame without thoroughly vetting their followers.
Law enforcement agencies and organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) are actively engaged in combating sextortion.
The FBI’s special agent in charge for Oregon, Kieran Ramsey, acknowledged that criminals are swiftly integrating AI into their activities, leveraging it in sextortion cases, hoax threats and virtual kidnap-for-ransom schemes.
Ramsey explained how criminals can manipulate innocent photos of children to appear as explicit images and then demand money from families to prevent their release on the internet.
“Now someone is taking their benign content and making it explicit and convincing them that oh yes this will be used against you is really, really concerning,” Ramsey said.
Similarly, virtual kidnap-for-ransom cases utilize AI-generated phone calls with fake voices of family members to extort payments.
Recent events in Eugene, Oregon, also exemplified the consequences of AI manipulation, when two students paid someone online to generate AI-generated threats against their high school.
The threats, delivered via phone calls, prompted multiple lockdowns and exhaustive police sweeps, causing anxiety and disruption among the student body.
Ramsey said the need for law enforcement agencies to stay ahead of criminals in adopting new technology.
“Unfortunately, we have to wait for that regulatory policy, that law to come out that gives us a new tool in the toolbox to combat whatever that thing is,” Ramsey said. “But at the same time, we got to make sure whatever tools we have now, we are fully using, to prevent any further harm and stop any schemes were seeing right now.”
He urged the public to report any incidents of sextortion or other cybercrimes to the FBI through its website, ic3.gov.