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This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

A South Carolina mother is suing Snapchat after her 13-year-old son died by suicide last year.

The family says young Timothy Barnett took his own life April 6, 2023, at his Sumter home after he fell victim to a sextortion scheme on the social media app.

“On April 6 … it was a typical morning,” Betsy Hauptman, Timothy’s mother, told Fox News Digital. “My husband and I were waking up. The alarm went off at about 6:15. My husband got up first. He walked out the door. I was in the bathroom, and I got a phone call, and my husband’s like, ‘Hey, do me a favor, lock the door. Make sure the doors are all locked, and check on the kids.'”

Initially, Hauptman’s husband — Timothy’s stepfather — thought “someone was sleeping in the yard” but later realized it was Timothy.

SOUTH CAROLINA LAWMAKER EXPOSES DANGERS OF ‘SEXTORTION’ AFTER TEENAGE SON’S SUICIDE

Timothy Barnett

Timothy Barnett died by suicide April 6, 2023, after falling victim to a sextortion scheme on Snapchat. (Handout)

“I woke up in a nightmare,” Hauptman, a mother of three boys and four stepchildren, said.

It wasn’t until about six months later that Hauptman realized her son had been the victim of a sextortion scheme on Snapchat. The FBI describes sextortion as a criminal act in which an offender contacts a victim online and coerces the victim to send explicit images or videos in exchange for either more explicit material or money.

AFTER MICHIGAN TEEN’S SUICIDE, NIGERIAN BROTHERS PLEAD GUILTY TO PLANNING DEADLY SEXTORTION SCHEME

“What happened to Timothy is devastating, and our hearts go out to his family during this unimaginable time,” a Snapchat spokesperson told Fox News Digital. “We have zero tolerance for predators abusing young people on Snapchat and are working constantly to fight this horrific activity. We use proactive detection tools to find and remove these types of criminals and work around the clock to support law enforcement investigations.

“We offer extra safeguards for teens to protect against unwanted contact and don’t offer public friend lists, which helps prevent predators from targeting a teen’s friends. We also want to help young people learn the signs of extortion and have launched in-app education to raise awareness of how to spot and report it.”

Timothy and his mom

It wasn’t until about six months after Timothy’s death that Betsy Hauptman realized her son had been the victim of a sextortion scheme on Snapchat.  (handout)

The FBI received more than 13,000 reports of online financial sextortion involving at least 12,600 victims between October 2021 and March 2023.

Hauptman said information about the sextortion scheme that resulted in Timothy’s suicide “was buried in the closed suicide case,” and she didn’t find out about it until her inner “mama bear” came out at her local police station.

“I had absolutely no clue what sextortion was.”

— Betsy Hauptman

But she and her husband do not take social media lightly. They did regular and random “spot checks” on their kids’ phones “at least twice a week” to make sure they were being safe on social media. During one such “spot check” on Timothy’s phone in November 2022, Hauptman found an inappropriate video from someone Timothy did not know on Snapchat.

Timothy and his mom

Betsy Hauptman and her husband did regular and random “spot checks” of their kids’ phones about twice a week. (handout)

“We talked to Timothy about the dangers of doing this. And I really kind of preached the whole sex trafficking aspect of it,” Hauptman said. “I don’t remember if we reported it or not, but I know for certain we blocked that account.”

AI ‘DEEPFAKES’ OF INNOCENT IMAGES FUEL SPIKE IN SEXTORTION SCAMS, FBI WARNS

She also confiscated Timothy’s phone until January, during which time she saw a general improvement in his attitude. When he got his phone back, Timothy “promised” to go to his parents if he ever came across anything like that video again, Hauptman said.

“Hindight’s 20/20, and I really wish that, at least, we wouldn’t have allowed Snapchat.”

— Betsy Hauptman

Hauptman’s attorney, Joe Cunningham, said “if these type of dangers” on Snapchat “were lurking in an apartment complex or in a neighborhood, they would be flushed out very quickly and effectively.”

A phone, several apps

About two-thirds of teen users on Snapchat said they’ve been targeted by sextortion scams. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“Parenting right now does have its own challenges that are distinct from generations past, and to the extent that people are creating communities like Snap and then profiting off them by using children as their products, they have a responsibility to make sure that product is safe and that it does not put children in harm’s way by allowing these types of predators to contact and reach out to them,” Cunningham said.

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The wrongful death lawsuit filed in South Carolina federal court argues “Snapchat is defectively designed with features that make the platform unreasonably dangerous for minors like Timothy,” and that “[a]s a direct and foreseeable consequence of Snap’s unsafe design, lack of warnings, and inadequate parental controls, Timothy fell victim to a sexual predator who extorted him by threatening to share sexually explicit images Timothy had been manipulated into sending,” resulting in his suicide.

Timothy Barnett

The wrongful death lawsuit filed in South Carolina federal court argues “Snapchat is defectively designed with features that make the platform unreasonably dangerous for minors like Timothy.” (handout)

The lawsuit notes that Snapchat allows users to send photos and messages that “disappear” as soon as they are opened, though a user can also choose to make their messages visible for a longer period of time.

FBI WARNS TEEN BOYS INCREASINGLY TARGETED IN ONLINE ‘SEXTORTION’ SCHEMES

“Snapchat’s limited display time … encourages users to send photos depicting deviant behavior. Sexting is a prime example, but cyberbullying, underage alcohol consumption, and illicit use of narcotics are also commonly the subject of Snaps,” the complaint states. 

“A 2016 survey of pre-teens and teens ages 12-17 found that ‘d— pics’ were among some of the unwanted content that users — predominantly females — received while using the app.”

The complaint also noted that “[d]isappearing Snaps do not operate as advertised.”

Snapchat

Snapchat allows users to send photos and messages that “disappear” as soon as they are opened. (Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto)

“Although designed to disappear after an allotted time, recipients possess the ability to save or record them at will,” the lawsuit says. “This is particularly harmful to adolescents, who rely on Snap’s representations when taking and sending photos, and who only learn after the fact that recipients have the means to save photos or videos. In many cases, this leads to sexual exploitation.”

GROWING SNAPCHAT ‘SEXTORTION’ SCHEMES TARGET YOUNG BOYS, EXPERT WARNS

South Carolina State Rep. Brandon Guffey, who lost his 17-year-old son to suicide after a sextortion scheme in July 2022, has spoken to Hauptman about their similar circumstances. Guffey sued Meta earlier this year after his son met a sextortionist posing as a girl on Instagram.

“Snap, along with these other social media companies, are allowing kids below 18 to agree to these contract terms. Snap even says it themselves that two-thirds of all of their teen [users] have been targeted for sextortion, and yet they have no protections in place. And not only that, they double down by adding AI, which has amplified the issue.”

Gavin Guffey in a graduation gown

South Carolina State. Rep. Brandon Guffey encourages those who may be the victim of sextortion to contact police. (Brandon Guffey)

“I really just want parents to stand up, stand together and voice their concerns,” Guffey said. “And if the big tech companies can’t listen by our voice, then we need to start making moves with our wallets. Stop investing into these companies. … Maybe it needs to be a social justice campaign to make them realize I don’t want to have to legislate all this. I believe in less government. I want the companies to do what’s right. And right now, they are not acting like companies that really give a damn.”

“[T]hey are not acting like companies that give a damn.”

— Brandon Guffey

An investigation into Timothy’s death remains ongoing.

Hauptman remembered her son as “a 13-year-old rugged and tough, tumbling boy.” He was “the life of the party,” she said.

“He was always the one to light up the room when he walked in. Typical middle child that craved attention. I remember when he was an infant … when his daddy was deployed, and he needed to sleep face to face with mom for those nine and a half months that Dad was gone,” she recalled.

Hauptman and Timothy

Hauptman remembered her son as “a 13-year-old rugged and tough, tumbling boy.” (handout)

He loved baseball and playing the saxophone. At one point, he declared himself “the man of the house” to his mom and asked her how she took her coffee. From that point on, he took it upon himself to make her coffee in the morning, Hauptman said.

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The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has created a free service called Take it Down, which is meant to help victims of sextortion erase explicit images of victims or get bad actors to stop sharing them online. The tool can be accessed at https://takeitdown.ncmec.org.

The FBI encourages anyone who believes they may be the victim of sextortion or know someone who may be a victim to immediately contact local law enforcement or the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI (800-225-5324) or online at tips.fbi.gov.



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