Pauline Stuart told CNN in an interview that her 17-year-old-son Ryan Last was blackmailed by a “sextortionist” posing as a woman one school night in February.
“Someone reached out to him, pretending to be a girl, and they started a conversation,” she explained on Sunday.
He was forced to pay money to the “sextortionist” after the scammer messaged Ryan with a nude photo and asked for one in return, his mother said.
The FBI has labelled such scams as “sextortion” amid an alarming rise in cases – leading to a warning being issued in March to parents all over the US.
Ryan’s mother said he was reportedly asked to pay $5,000 or face his sexually explicit image being sent to close friends and family the night he was targetted.
The senior student pleaded with his scammer to pay a lower amount because he did not have sufficient funds in his college savings account, his mother said.
“He told them they couldn’t [demand $5,000] so they lowered the money”, his mother said. “They threatened to post those to family members, put them on the internet”.
After sending $150 to the scammer, Ryan was asked to pay more and he eventually decided to take his own life. His mother said he left a note behind explaining what had occurred.
“He was still a happy normal kid but by two o’oclock in the morning, that’s when he took his life”, she said. “He really truly thought in that time there wasn’t a way to get by if those pictures were actually posted online.”
She continued: “His note showed he was absolutely terrified, and no child should have to be that scared”.
In March, the FBI issued a warning to parents “about an increase in incidents involving sextortion of young children,” which would lead any offender to up to life imprisonment if convicted.
The agency says awareness and education is vital for stopping the scammers, and that “to make the victimisation stop, children typically have to come forward to someone – normally a parent, teacher, caregiver, or law enforcement”
“The most effective way to disrupt these criminals is through awareness, education, and having important discussions with your children about their online safety,” said Wayne Jacobs, a FBI special agent in charge of criminal and cyber, at the time.
“We recognise victims may feel embarrassed and thus hesitant to come forward and report these incidents, but we are strongly encouraging victims to notify us so that these individuals are held to account for their actions and, most importantly, prevented from harming another child.”
FBI supervisory special agent Dan Costin told CNN that investigators had so far determined that most “sextortion” criminals are operating from somewhere in Africa and Southeast Asia.
The US has begun working with law enforcement counterparts around the world to begin identifying and arresting those responsible.
There were more than 18,000 sextortion-related complaints in the US in 2021, according to the FBI, with losses of more than $13.6m (£11.4).
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.