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A Houston-area man has been federally charged in a social media sextortion scheme of minors

<i>Yuri Gripas/Reuters</i><br/>The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is seen at FBI headquarters in Washington
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
The Federal Bureau of Investigation seal is seen at FBI headquarters in Washington

By Rebekah Riess, CNN

(CNN) — A Houston-area man was arrested Thursday and federally charged with the sexual exploitation of children for obtaining explicit images and videos of women throughout the United States, many of whom were minors, and using them for extortion, according to a criminal complaint.

The man, identified as 23-year-old Andrew Venegas, had advertised his content to others online “at least” since the summer of 2022 and specifically offered “content depicting minors under the age of 18,” according to the affidavit.

Law enforcement believe Venegas was posting sexually explicit material on a website that “mentions the unlawful intrusion into Snapchat accounts as a service offered on the site,” according to the affidavit.

Numerous victims throughout the country reported to law enforcement their images or videos were posted to the same website without their permission, including some who said they thought the material had been taken from their Snapchat accounts without their permission, the affidavit says.

Law enforcement officials believe “over 1000 different females had their images posted on the website, often accompanied by their true names,” the affidavit said.

Venegas, whose uploaded content often appeared to bear a watermark reading “TELEGRAM Starkylol,” according to the affidavit, also allegedly used a Telegram account to post and sell pictures and videos obtained by “knowingly forcing women to create and/or provide images against their will” through blackmail.

“Several victims first found out that their images or videos were posted after individuals contacted them and threatened to share the images/videos with friends or family if they did not provide additional explicit images and videos,” the affidavit said.

Venegas eventually sold content to undercover law enforcement agents, leading to his arrest in Houston Thursday, the affidavit says.

He remains in custody pending a preliminary examination and detention hearing set for July 18 before Magistrate Judge Christina Bryan, the court docket shows. Venegas does not currently have an attorney listed.

The FBI and US Justice Department had been warning of a dramatic increase of financial sextortion schemes targeting minors, with at least 3,000 minors, primarily boys, targeted in 2022, according to safety alerts shared by the agencies.

Using social media platforms, predators will, in some cases, start communicating with the targeted minor before moving the conversation to a different platform that primarily uses direct messaging, according to the department. Victims are tricked into providing explicit material, and then the perpetrators will demand money – sometimes thousands of dollars – threatening to release the images to family members and friends of the victim, the Justice Department said in a safety alert.

The FBI advised those who believe they have become victims of sextortion to report it to their local FBI field office.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers a service called Take It Down, which helps remove explicit photos and videos of underage people from certain online platforms.

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