It looked a lot like a Hollywood movie set – lights, cameras and plenty of action. But this production crew was far from Tinseltown. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) had descended upon a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore to create something that would hopefully catch the attention of teenagers across America.
A growing number of teenage boys are being targeted in sextortion schemes for money. If they don’t pay up, they’re told, explicit photos they’ve taken of themselves will be shared online with friends and family. Some victims become so embarrassed and desperate they’re taking their own lives.
It was vital that NCMEC get the word out to the public – especially to teenage boys – and get it out fast. However, public service announcements (PSAs) can take a lot of time and money to produce, and victims were taking desperate measures quickly, sometimes hours after they’re sextorted.
“Why don’t we produce a series of PSAs ourselves?” suggested Angeline Hartmann, Director of Communications at our nonprofit organization, at a hastily called meeting. “We create videos every day about missing and exploited children. Let’s make this happen!”
The whole gang: NCMEC’s production team, the Redmans and our actors.
Gavin Portnoy, the Vice President of our Communications & Brand Team, said most people don’t realize we have a full production team with producers, directors of photography, editors and directors with experience making high-profile television shows and films over their careers. His team was more than capable of producing a PSA. The hard part would be the approach.
“How were we going to reach teens about this really super serious issue?” Gavin said. “It was a very interesting challenge and one that our in-house production team was all about solving.”
Angeline had recently been telling some friends, James and Christine Redman, both educators, how we were seeing an alarming spike in reports to our CyberTipline of teenage boys being enticed online to share explicit photos. The offenders, often posing as teenage girls, use the photos to extort them, threatening to share the images with family and friends if they don’t give them money or, in some cases, even more explicit photos.
Earlier trends in sextortion pointed to girls being the primary target. In many of those cases, the motive was to obtain more and more explicit photos through extortion. Recent trends show the targets and motives have shifted to teenage boys and money, respectively, and cases have accelerated. One of the most alarming aspects of money demands is how quickly desperation can set in.
As the idea of creating our own series of PSAs took root, Angeline reached back out to her friends, the Redmans, who have two teenagers, including a 19-year-old son, Ty. Would their son be willing to be an actor in our PSAs? Ty was more than happy to help. The Redmans even let us shoot from a place where this crime most often occurs – in a teenager’s home.
James said he and his wife had no idea that teenage boys were being targeted on social media platforms in sextortion schemes. He said Angeline explained that young male victims often don’t have the maturity – or courage – to tell an adult or even know where to turn for help.
“I was floored that it was such a huge problem, and we were happy to do it,” James, a former principal, said of opening his home to NCMEC. “We work on behalf of families,” James said of he and his wife. “Just to think we could have former students who were victims. This was the least we could do. It was a no-brainer.”
Eager to help their peers, from left: Tyler, Max, Josh and Ty.
Angeline found three more volunteers to join Ty as part of the cast – Josh Sambrano, 18; Max Saunders, 15; and Tyler Svehla, 12. All were eager to help if by doing so they could warn kids about what was happening on the internet and show them where to seek help.
“It was great to work with some teens who weren’t traditional actors,” said Gavin, who directed the PSAs. “I’ve had the honor of working with some Emmy and Tony Award-winning talent over my career – and these kids knocked it clear out of the park.”
Gavin directing scenes at the Redman’s home with Eric behind the camera.
Ty, a college student, said that playing the part of someone being sextorted online gave him insight into a world that a lot of people don’t realize exists.
“It was interesting, especially because I got to inhabit another person,” Ty said of playing the role of a victim in the PSAs. “I feel like that shooting process left me with a better understanding of how it must feel to be extorted and think you have nowhere to turn.”
We’re learning through reports to our CyberTipline, the designated place in the U.S. where suspected child sexual exploitation is reported, that victims often know their sextortioners as current or former romantic partners. They may have an initial sexual image that was intentionally sent by the victim and are now using it to extort them. Other times, the offender is someone the victim meets online who is working alone or as part of a coordinated group.
(L-R) Christine and Angeline work with the actors on the script.
For Gavin and other members of NCMEC’s production team, including Angeline, Christine Barndt and Reggie Saunders, shooting the PSAs came naturally. They had all once worked together on the set of America’s Most Wanted, the hugely successful crime show hosted by one of NCMEC’s co-founders, John Walsh.
Gavin said he had been binge watching Edgar Wright’s films and his style of quick cuts reminded him of what had been trending on TikTok. “So, we ran with it,” he said. “I think that the end product does a great job of talking to teens about the dangers online, while also not taking itself too seriously.”
“Scene 1, Take 3, Action!” shouted a crew member, snapping the black and white clapperboard again and again, as NCMEC Director of Photography Eric Fallah filmed scenes in the kitchen, the living room, the front yard. There was no need to bring props to this set. Most kids in the country have the devices used to sextort teenagers: cellphones, laptops, gaming devices.
Angeline said NCMEC’s PSAs, which are being distributed nationwide and on social media, are targeting teenage boys where they can often be found – on the internet.
“We have to let them know, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t share personal photos with anyone. Even if you think they are your friend,’” she said. “If it does happen to you, you don’t have to feel trapped. There is help out there.”
(If you or someone you know is a victim of sextortion, immediately make a report to www.cybertipline.org.)