Scams Targeting Teens and Tweens Are Skyrocketing

You’ve probably heard awareness campaigns about online scams targeting seniors – but what those aimed at teenagers? As teens and tweens grow up in digital spaces and join social media platforms, scammers are finding a new, younger audience. KGNU’s Emily Soesilo has more.


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    Scams Targeting Teens and Tweens Are Skyrocketing Alexis Kenyon

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Emily Soesilo: Social media use is a daily routine for many teenagers and young adults. However, growing up with the internet doesn’t make youth immune to scams in digital spaces. Kai Zainy is a high school sophomore.

Kai Zainy: This account followed me on Instagram. It was following other people, and other people were following it. I thought, ‘might as well.’

Emily Soesilo: Recently, someone who suffered the consequences of online scams went into an account he thought was trustworthy. Reached out to him on Instagram.

Kai Zainy: It’s like, “Oh, can I use one of your posts on Instagram for a collage I’m doing?” And they were like, “You’ll get paid.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”

Emily Soesilo: This account looked like it belonged to a girl who makes art. The person would post their artwork and stories with videos of themselves. They then sent a picture of a thousand-dollar check.

Kai Zainy: She said, “Just take the check, and then send me back the extra money.” I replied that I can’t send any money back because it’s not in my account yet. Then the person started to get aggressive, saying, “Are you messing with me?” I assured them I wasn’t; the money just hadn’t arrived yet.

Emily Soesilo: The scammers claimed they had sent Kai $2,400 and started demanding their money. Kai said it was from his own account, starting with increments of a hundred dollars. The scammer paired these demands with threats and morbid photos, claiming they knew where Kai lived and went to school.

Kai Zainy: At this point, I was scared. I feared for my life. I was really concerned that she might come to my sister’s school or find me in some way, or even hurt my loved ones. The $2,400 arrived, and I was ready to pay back all the money that was sent.

Emily Soesilo: After a few days, the bank contacted him, saying the money was fake, and they deducted all the money he had sent and received. Kai had fallen victim to a ‘random deposit scam’ or an ‘overpayment scam,’ leaving his account in the negatives.

Fairplay is an organization that seeks to protect kids from harmful online practices. The campaign director, David Monahan, describes various scam techniques, including the one Kai fell victim to.

David Monahan: There are fake loans or scholarships, fake contests. There are also scams where on a cash app like Venmo, someone might reach out to a young person and say, “Oh, I accidentally sent you some money. Can you send it back to me?” Then they learn that they never actually received the money in the first place, making it as if somebody stole money from them. There are also people who will pose as other teenagers when they’re really adults. There are also instances of sextortion, where an older person will claim that they have compromising photos of a young person and threaten them that if they don’t pay money, they’re going to spread them around the internet.

Emily Soesilo: Jason Hebrard, the agent in charge of the high-tech crimes unit of the Colorado Bureau of Investigations, says that between 2017 and 2021, online scams targeting teens and tweens skyrocketed.

Jason Hebrard: It jumped 1126%, and that’s reported. So, it may be far higher, much higher than that.

Emily Soesilo: Those most at risk and easiest to target are tweens transitioning to their teen years since they’re still learning about social media and can’t easily identify scams, says Hebrard. Sextortion, in particular, seems to be on the rise. According to the FBI, 40,000 cases of sextortion were reported last year. Hebrard says there are many ways scams can affect victims.

Jason Hebrard: They can range from embarrassment and loss of money all the way up to kids feeling like they have no other way out and ending up dealing with self-harm, up to and including taking their own lives.

Emily Soesilo: Laws are gradually catching up to the rapid pace of digital scams. One law in South Carolina punishes sextortion as a felony. It was introduced by a state lawmaker whose 17-year-old son, Gavin Guffey, committed suicide after an online persona posing as a teenage girl threatened to share explicit pictures of him with his family and friends. Agent Hebrard has a few tips on how to prevent getting scammed and what to look out for.

Jason Hebrard: If anybody ever asks you for your social security number, other than your parents, that should be a red flag.

Emily Soesilo: Do your usernames include your full name or do your profiles that include your date of birth? Hebrard says not to do that.

Jason Hebrard: That’s the first place people will look to accumulate information about you.

Emily Soesilo: Hebrard says not to click on random stuff or accept weird requests. Don’t interact with people you don’t know and don’t share your password, even with someone you’re close to, especially with someone you don’t know.

Jason Hebrard: Educate yourselves on what scam text messages actually look like. And last but not least, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. We’ve all heard that, I think, from our parents, grandparents, on TV. Well, it’s absolutely correct.

Emily Soesilo: Many teens and young adults don’t report falling victim to scams due to embarrassment or not wanting to involve their family or friends. As a 15-year-old teenager myself, one thing I’ve learned is to trust my instincts and never be afraid to ask for help. Jason Hebrard says teenagers should always reach out to their parents or loved ones for help, and that no matter what, there’s always a way out.


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    Scams Targeting Teens and Tweens Are Skyrocketing Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon

Alexis Kenyon is an experienced radio reporter with more than 15 years of experience creating compelling, sound-rich radio stories for news outlets across the country. Kenyon has master's degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism in radio broadcast and photojournalism. She has worked in KGNU's news department since 2021 as a reporter, editor, and daily news producer. In all her work, she strives to produce thought-provoking, trustworthy journalism that makes other people's stories feel personal. In addition to audio production, Kenyon runs KGNU's news internship program and oversees the department's digital engagement.

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