Ryan Last received a message on a school night in February from someone he believed to be a girl.
Within hours, the 17-year-old, straight-A student and Boy Scout had died by suicide.
Scammer Posed as a Girl, Threatened to Leak Photo to Friends, Family
A scammer reached out to Last posing as a girl and sent him a nude photo. The cybercriminal then asked Last to send one back, and when he complied, the scammer demanded $5,000.
If Last did not comply, the scammer threatened to send the explicit photo to his friends and family. The teen told the cybercriminal that he could not afford to pay the total $5,000, and they eventually settled on just $150. He paid them out of his college fund, but the scammer continued to demand more money from the teen.
"They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him," Last's mother, Pauline Stuart, told CNN.
Last Left Behind a Suicide Note Expressing His Embarrassment
Pauline learned about the details surrounding her son's death after law enforcement investigators reconstructed the events leading up to his death.
She had said goodnight to Ryan at 10 p.m., and described him as her usually happy son. By 2 a.m., he had been scammed, and taken his life. Ryan left behind a suicide note describing how embarrassed he was for himself and the family.
"He really, truly thought in that time that there wasn't a way to get by if those pictures were actually posted online," Pauline said. "His note showed he was absolutely terrified. No child should have to be that scared."
FBI Issues Warning Over Rise in 'Sextortion' Cases
Law enforcement calls the scam "sextortion," and investigators have seen an explosion in complaints from victims leading the FBI to ramp up a campaign to warn parents from coast to coast. The bureau says there were over 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in 2021, with losses in excess of $13 million.
In March, the FBI issued a warning to parents "about an increase in incidents involving sextortion of young children," which would lead any offender to up to life imprisonment if convicted.
The agency says awareness and education is vital for stopping the scammers, and that "to make the victimisation stop, children typically have to come forward to someone â normally a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement"
"The most effective way to disrupt these criminals is through awareness, education, and having important discussions with your children about their online safety," said Wayne Jacobs, a FBI special agent in charge of criminal and cyber, at the time.
"We recognise victims may feel embarrassed and thus hesitant to come forward and report these incidents, but we are strongly encouraging victims to notify us so that these individuals are held to account for their actions and, most importantly, prevented from harming another child."