COLONIE — A local school district is talking to middle and high school students about Internet safety after a catfishing scheme targeting teens in upstate New York was linked to at least one suicide.

The con artists lure teens on social media by posing as friends and convince them to send compromising photos. The images are then used to blackmail the teens for money with the threat of making them public, according to a warning from State Police.

North Colonie Central School district, after notifying parents of the scam that prompted 15-year-old Riley Basford of Potsdam, St. Lawrence County, to take his own life in March, is organizing a series of informational sessions with students and parents.

In Basford’s case, the predator spent time earning the boy’s trust online before persuading him to send the photos. The fraudster then bombarded Basford with demands for $3,500, threatening to send the photos to family and friends, according to news reports.

North Colonie elementary teacher Alexandra Casey has a personal connection to the victim. She said her 15-year-old nephew “was manipulated and blackmailed to the point that he felt trapped and was unable to see a way out. Riley took his own life, but as many headlines state, he didn’t want to die.”

A second St. Lawrence County teen, 18-year-old Shylynn M. Dixon, died by suicide after being targeted a similar scam. It’s unclear if Dixon and Basford were threatened by the same perpetrator.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned of a rise in cyber extortion schemes during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people are spending more time online.  Catfishing scams may target hundreds of victims at a time, authorities say.

A Shaker Junior High School counselor will talk to students this week about social media safety in general, alert them to the current scam targeting young people and let them know they can confide in a trusted adult at home or at school.

In the upcoming weeks, the district will hold information sessions for parents and students on social media safety and suicide prevention.

Parents who believe their child has been a victim of an online exploitation scheme are encouraged to notify their school or local authorities.

For parents:

  • Talk to your children about going online and set rules about where and when they are surfing or chatting.
  • Monitor your children’s social media accounts

For kids and teens:

  • Be careful what you post. Never share personal information online. This includes full name, address, or phone number.
  • Don’t accept friend requests from strangers. 
  • Don’t open emails, click on links, or download anything from unknown senders.
  • Never share photos online or through texts or direct message with people you don’t know. 
  • If you, or someone you know is having thoughts of harming yourself, talk to someone who can help.
  • If you feel you have been a victim of this type of crime, contact your local police.

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