A South Bay mother is speaking out in hopes that her family’s tragedy will help prevent other families from facing the same heartbreak.
Pauline Stuart says her 17-year-old son Ryan Last died by suicide following what police say was cyber blackmail — something the family says happened suddenly and without any warning.
Stuart said one night in late February, Last got a message on social media from a scammer who was posing as a young girl. The scammer struck up a long conversation and sent Ryan a nude photo and then asked Ryan to share an explicit image of himself in return. Immediately after Ryan shared an intimate photo of his own, the cybercriminal demanded $5,000, threatening to make the photo public and send it to Ryan’s family and friends [NBC Los Angeles].
The San Jose, California, teen told the cybercriminal he could not pay the full amount, and the demand was ultimately lowered to a fraction of the original figure — $150. But after paying the scammers from his college savings, Stuart said, “They kept demanding more and more and putting lots of continued pressure on him.”
“They wouldn’t give up until he felt he had no choice,” Stuart said. “But to do it to protect his family. He loved us so much that he wanted to protect us from the mistake he made.” Stuart said it all unfolded in a single night, so quick that even the parental controls they have on all of the family’s devices didn’t help.
At the time, Stuart knew none of what her son was experiencing. She learned the details 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,” Stuart said. “His note showed he was absolutely terrified. No child should have to be that scared.”
“I can honestly sit in my bed and cry for hours,” Stuart said. “But I have another child that I have to be there for.” Last was a senior at Sobrato High School and had plans to attend Washington State University. “He was so excited to go,” Stuart said. “We were going to go visit and tour the campus.”
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. The FBI says the use of child pornography by criminals to lure suspects also constitutes a serious crime.
Unfortunately, many victims of sextortion do not report the incidents to law enforcement. “The embarrassment piece of this is probably one of the bigger hurdles that the victims have to overcome,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Costin. “It can be a lot, especially in that moment.”
But investigators urge victims to quickly contact law enforcement, either online or at their local FBI field office [CNN].
MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE
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