BROOKSVILLE (FOX 13) - Unsolicited online chat requests can be harmless, but the Hernando County Sheriff's Office is warning it could be more than just a friendly "Hello."
Since October of last year, the sheriff's office says it has investigated seven cases of so-called online sextortion - involving threats, fraud, and sexual abuse.
Investigators say the cases involve an online persona claiming to be a very attractive female. The individual sends what she says are photos of herself to a victim in a chat room or message app, usually Facebook Messenger.
The suspect gains rapport with the victim and then initiates a video chat.
Investigators say victims are then convinced to perform sexual acts on video. As soon as the victim complies, the suspect hangs up and demands money to keep the video from being made public.
The suspect asks for money in the form of gift cards to be sent to an anonymous address in a western African nation, according to the sheriff's office.
Investigators say in some cases, video has been shared with victims' family and friends, which were publicly visible on social media.
The age range of the victims varies, with the youngest being only 13 years old. Detectives fear teens or young adults may consider self-harm if they are frightened by the threats, afraid to speak to a responsible adult, embarrassed by the incident, think that they really need to pay to "make it go away," or do not have the means.
Investigators say it is important to note that the suspect in these cases could pose as a male or a female.
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay says these situations are why they're here.
"You really can feel like, "Oh my God, everyone in the world is going to know what I've done,'" said CEO and president Clara Reynolds. "This is just a temporary situation. You don't even know something real is going to happen from this. So please don't take a drastic measure."
Reynolds is encouraging parents to have honest, open, and even uncomfortable conversations with their kids about this very real cyber danger.
"Just because someone reaches out to you on the internet doesn't mean they're telling you the truth," Reynolds said.
She said the best thing you can do if you don't know what to do or who to call is to call them.
"Don't be afraid, reach out, call 211, talk about what happened, and let us help you problem solve. Often times it's not as bad once you get a chance to really talk about it," Reynolds said.
You can reach the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at www.crisiscenter.com, by calling 813-964-1964 or by dialing 211.
If you feel you have been a victim of this type of crime, please contact Detective Tom Breedlove with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office at 352-754-6830.