Last February, Ryan Last received a message from a person he believed to be a girl. What might normally be a harbinger of new beginnings was in reality the beginning of a tragic and criminal sequence of events that would lead to the 17-year-old’s untimely death.
In his final days, Ryan Last was looking towards the next horizon of his young life—a time so typically filled with dreams and promise of exciting things to come. Ryan and his mother, Pauline Stuart, had just returned from visiting several colleges that Ryan was considering attending following his impending graduation from high school. Pauline described her son to CNN as a “usually happy” young man, who was a straight-A student and a former Boy Scout.
It all began with a seemingly-innocuous text exchange “Somebody reached out to him pretending to be a girl, and they started a conversation,” Pauline told CNN. Unfortunately, Pauline had no idea Little did Ryan know that the conversation would soon take a dark and sinister turn, and he would soon become the victim of a sextortion scam by a criminal posing as a young girl for financial gain. She was posthumously informed by investigators who had to use text messages and financial transactions to piece together what had happened to Ryan in the last hours of his life.
Like many sextortion scams out there, the scammer sent Ryan an intimate photo—a hyper-common opening-salvo. The scammer then asked Ryan to return the gesture by sending an intimate photo of himself, which he obliged. That’s when things turned sinister. As soon as the scammer received the intimate photo, they began demanding $5,000 from the 17-year-old boy, or else they would publish the intimate photo and send it to Ryan’s family and friends. He told the scammer that he could not afford to pay the entire extortion figure, and managed to convince the scammer to lower the figure to $150, which he was forced to pull from his college savings. Pauline told CNN, however, that the scammers immediately continued to extort money from her son, “They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him.” Tragically, by 2:00 AM, Ryan had taken his own life, leaving behind a note detailing his immense embarrassment on behalf of himself and his family. “He really, truly thought in that time that there wasn’t a way to get by if those pictures were actually posted online. His note showed he was absolutely terrified. No child should have to be that scared.”
As technology continues to evolve and become somehow more ubiquitous, law enforcement is seeing a drastic uptick in what they are calling “sextortion scams” in which criminals acquire intimate photos or information about their target, then threaten to publish the photos or information unless their demands are met. However, with more and more teens becoming the targets of these sextortion scams, the FBI is mounting a campaign to ensure parents know their teens could be vulnerable all across the United States. According to the FBI, there were over 18,000 sextortion complaints in 2021 alone, with financial losses of over $13 million—not just with intimate photos of adults, but also with the use of child exploitation materials in order to make the target pay up. The FBI has advised that the investigation into Ryan Last’s extorter is still ongoing. “To be a criminal that specifically targets children—it’s one of the more deeper violations of trust I think in society,” says FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Costin, who leads a team of investigators who specifically work to solve crimes against children.
The FBI has determined that a significant percentage of sextortion scams that occur in the United States every year are perpetrated from a remote location, such as Africa or Southeast Asia, which requires the FBI to collaborate with many international agencies throughout the globe in order to track down these criminals, especially those who are targeting minors with their schemes. However, investigating sextortion scams presents its own series of challenges, namely the fact that many victims of sextortion scams do not report incidents to law enforcement—a factor that the criminals responsible are counting on, especially when it comes to minors. “The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles that the victims have overcome,” says Costin, “It can be a lot, especially in the moment.”
It’s difficult to understand why any individual would take their own lives under the threat of having their personal intimate photos released online, but with teenagers, the circumstances are mitigated. Everyone remembers how difficult it is to be a teenager. With their still-developing brains and lack of life experience, their ability to accurately judge the consequences of any given situation is heavily compromised. Dr. Scott Hadland, the chief of adolescent medicine at Mass General in Boston, says that adolescents, especially adolescent young men, are incapable of seeing the big picture, “So when something catastrophic happens, like a personal picture is released to people online, it’s hard for them to look past that moment and understand that in the big scheme of things, they’ll be able to get through this.
Stories like that of Ryan Last have parents all over the country fretting about how they can protect their children from sextortion scams, but there are steps that parents can take. Dr. Hadland told CNN, “The most important thing that a parent should do with their teen is try to understand what they’re doing online. You want to know when they’re going online, who they’re interacting with, what platforms they’re using. Are they being approached by people that they don’t know, are they experiencing pressure to share information or photos?” If your family has been experiencing problems with a sextortion scam, call Lauth Investigations International at 317-951-1100 for a free quote or visit us online at www.lauthinvestigations.com