The family of Ryan Last, a California teenager who took his own life within hours of falling victim to an online sextortion scheme, is speaking out in hopes of helping others avoid what federal authorities warn is a harmful and growing internet scam targeting young people.
“We want to get Ryan’s story out there so that no other family has to go through what we have,” Last’s mother, Pauline Stuart, said in a video released earlier this month with California’s San Jose Police Department. “We want to educate both parents and kids about the risks out there, and especially about sending compromising pictures to people on the internet.”
Stuart said Last, 17, was a high school senior, straight-A student and Boy Scout who was planning to attend Washington State University. In February, he was contacted online by someone who claimed to be a girl.
The person sent him a nude photo and asked Last to send one of himself in return. Last did so, and was then told that if he didn’t pay $5,000, the photo would be made public and sent to his family and friends.
Last said he didn’t have that much money to give, so the cybercriminal lowered it to $150, an amount that Last paid using his college savings, his mother told CNN. But the person wasn’t satisfied.
“They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him,” she said.
That evening, Last said good night to his parents. Within hours, he had died by suicide. In a note to his family, he expressed his embarrassment about the predicament he was in, his mother said.
“He chose to end his own life rather than have his pictures distributed on social media,” Stuart said in the video. “He believed his reputation would be destroyed, and he was terrified what his friends and family would think.”
Stuart encouraged parents to talk to their children “so kids know they can come to their parents if they’ve made a mistake.”
The FBI says it has received an increasing number of reports of children being targeted online in such blackmail schemes. In a public alert released earlier this month, the bureau’s San Francisco Division described how the extortion can unfold:
Sextortion begins when an adult contacts a minor over any online platform used to meet and communicate, such as a game, app, or social media account. In a scheme that has recently become more prevalent, the predator (posing as a young girl) uses deception and manipulation to convince a young male, usually 14 to 17 years old, to engage in explicit activity over video, which is then secretly recorded by the predator.
The predator then reveals that they have made the recordings and attempts to extort the victim for money to prevent them from being posted online. Many of the subjects are overseas and will often demand money in increasing amounts if any is sent during the initial request.
“We want to get Ryan’s story out there so that no other family has to go through what we have.”
“To prevent continued victimization, it is imperative children come forward to someone ― a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement,” the FBI said in the public alert. “Children may feel a sense of embarrassment from such a traumatic experience. However, sextortion offenders may have hundreds of victims worldwide, so coming forward to help law enforcement identify, and ultimately apprehend suspects, may prevent additional incidents of sexual exploitation from occurring.”
“Our agents see these cases a lot and have helped thousands of young people. Our goals are to stop the harassment, arrest the person behind the crime, and help you get the support you need,” the agency said. “If you’re not feeling ready to speak to the FBI, go to another trusted adult. Say you are being victimized online and need help. Talking about this can feel impossible, but there are people who can help. You are not the one in trouble.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.