Stemming the Surge of Sextortion in Cyberspace

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After he emailed thousands of people, one 20-year-old victim opened the file and opened the door for him to access her passwords, files, and everything on her computer, including her webcam. His sextortion included threatening to publicly post victims’ intimate content (e.g. pictures, videos) if they did not do what he asked.  When raided by the FBI, his cache included 13,000 screenshots, 900 audio recordings and 15,000 webcam-video captures. Including 44 minors (CNN, 2011), his list of victims totaled more than 230.  The 32-year-old cyber predator, Mistahxxxrightme, a.k.a. Luis Mijangos, was confined to a wheelchair and lived at home with his mother (Kushner, 2011).

What is Sextortion?

Coined from a combination of sexual exploitation and coercion, sextortion is a situation in which one is threatened with the release of sexually explicit images (of themselves or acquaintances) or more severe consequences if they do not comply with a demand.  About three-fourths of all sextortion cases involve predators coercing victims to produce more sexually explicit content of themselves (e.g. nude pics, sexual acts) with the threat of the sharing of images or videos of the victim with others.   Other forms of sextortion involve demands of the victim to provide money or even to engage in sex with the sextorter.  Alarmingly, the number of sextortion cases is on the rise (FBI, 2016) .

How Are Sextorters Obtaining Initial Content from the Victims?

The ways sextorters get their hands on others’ content often varies.   One of the most common methods used is the process of grooming whereby they attempt to gain the trust of the unsuspecting victim through gift giving, providing them with a sympathetic, listening ear, and/or being everything that the “out-of-touch, out-of-sight, or overly-strict” parent is not. As it may surprise you, many sextorters provide their true age yet are quite savvy in both identifying easy victims and persuading them to send the initial content.  Other sextorters will present themselves as an attractive male or female, use a picture of another as their own, and ultimately persuade a naïve tween or teen to seen nude pictures of videos.  Once the sextorter has the received the first picture or video, Mr. Friendly morphs into Mr. Nasty, escalating the situation through increased demands from the victim.  Though not as common, shrewder predators hack (i.e. access without permission) a victim’s computer, take over the webcam, and surreptitiously record footage.

How Concerned Should Parents, Teens, and Tweens Be?

As mentioned, the number of sextortion cases is growing at an alarming rate and sextorters have taken more aggressive approaches.  A few relatively recent cases are described below:

  • June 2, 2016. William Alan Buie, 16, of Fayetteville, NC, was charged with 42 total counts of sexual exploitation and extortion.  He allegedly used the messaging apps Instagram and Kik to present himself as a female to entice minors to send explicit pictures.  After they sent the initial photos, if they did not give him the password to their social media accounts, he threatened to send the original photos to their family members and friends.  The victims were between the ages of 14 and 16 years old.  He is facing 231 months behind bars if convicted of all charges. http://goo.gl/cJCJkW

 

  • February 12, 2016. Lucas Bales, 25, of Cape Coral Florida, was arrested at the home, he reportedly lives in with his parents, for sextortion.  He allegedly used the screen name “.Daddy” on the messaging app Kik to sextort an 11 and 12-year-old for nude photos. With one victim, he allegedly threatened, ‘I’m gonna tell everyone to come over to your house do some really vile things to you”, said he would ask others to rape her or set fire to her house if she did not send explicit content. He even was reported to have created a second username with the minor’s name and home address in it.  http://goo.gl/ir07GN                     http://goo.gl/QRYCkU

 

  • September 14, 2015. Carlos Antonio Williams, 23, of Tallahassee, FL, was charged with 127 counts of transmitting information harmful to minors, 103 counts of possessing photographs depicting sexual performance by a child, 30 counts of promoting sexual performance by a child, five counts of extortion, and other charges.  He allegedly frequently used the messenger app Kik, an app of choice for predators highlighted in a recent blog, to communicate with victims between the ages of 10 and 17 years old.  He is said to have misrepresented his age at times, while in other instances threatening not to tell his true age unless a pic was first sent.  When using Snapchat, a messaging app used to primarily share photos, he threatened a 14-year-old girl as follows, “I saved ur snaps (expletive) now what,” referring to the nude photos, adding “dumb ugly (expletive) u thought not sending it to me on kik was smart? u ugly (expletive) im older and wayy smarter.”    http://goo.gl/hdZwuo .

 

  • March 17, 2014. Jared James Abrahams, 20, pleaded guilty to one count of unauthorized access of a computer, three counts of extortion, and was sentenced to 18 months. He hacked the webcams of young victims to initially capture the images and use them as bait to send more. For one of the victims, the former Miss Teen USA, he changed her Twitter avatar to a half nude picture, and wrote “Either you do one of the things listed below or I upload these pics and a lot more (I have a LOT more and those are better quality) on all your accounts for everybody to see and your dream of being a model will be transformed into a pornstar (sic),” (Botelho, 2013).    He indicated he had between 30 and 40 “slave computers” – devices of others he controlled and had up to 150 at one time.  (Goldstein, 2014). http://goo.gl/gJ49ph

 

What Can Parents Do To Help Teens and Tweens Stay Safe?

If you are like me, the first thing you might think is, Using these tech space devices is too risky for youngsters….My children will NOT  be able to use social media apps/sites and can only use their phone to communicate with me and close relatives!   But then I’m reminded that unless they are ALWAYS under my watchful eye, they can easily gain access through their friends’ smartphone or device, access it while at school, or shrewdly figure out a way to bypass my parental control software (see 4 Ways Teens Bypass Parental Control Software).   As mentioned, the best way to have them engage in social spaces in less risky ways is to continue to develop the strong communicative relationship in which you keep them abreast of the many ways predators have lured minors along with providing specific tips for safely exploring tech spaces.    It’s not enough just to tell them but teach with evidence of others experiences.  There are a host of sextortion cases which are a quick find at the end of a Google news search.

Here are a few additional tips for preventing your child from becoming a victim:

  • You send to one you send to all. Teach them to assume that whatever is shared with one person will eventually be shared with all who log onto the web.  Even pics shared with close friends often are frequently used to shame or embarrass after a break up or argument.

 

  • Power off and cover cameras to avoid capture. Make sure your device is off and the camera is not positioned to capture any footage of you.  This might mean closing the laptop with webcam or ensuring the smartphone’s camera is covered when not in use.

 

  • Don’t know don’t open. Hackers have been known to use malware in which they send an email to someone then gain access to their device when they open it.  Though not 100% foolproof, they minimize the risk by not opening emails from those they do not know.

 

  • Keep the conversation continuously flowing. Have conversations with them where you talk about what happened with your social media experiences that day as an entre for them to open up to talk about theirs.  I’ve found that young people are more willing to open up if you first share a bit about you (Ask me how I found that out!).   Share with them actual cases which involve the typical sextortion plot: The child is threatened to be harmed if they don’t comply with the demands then keeps the situation hidden from their parents.  Comfort them to know that the most important thing they can do is to tell you ( or a trustworthy adult) about it.  Assure them that you won’t take away all social media privileges if there is an incident.  When you blow up with anger about similar situations, you not only risk them trying to hide them from you but also  turning to someone their age whose advice is about as worthless as a three dollar bill.

 

  • Remove the “but-ifs”. No matter what you say, a typical teenager will try figure out every way to disprove your wisdom to show they have it ALL-FIGURED-OUT!  When it comes to sextortion, they’ll tell you how you’re being overly cautious, parentally paranoid, or making it out to be a bigger deal than it is.  They will tell you about the sites where someone can place an image of one person on the nude body of another then share it on the web.  You simply remind them that there is no one way which will always keep them out of a predator’s path, but they can engage in tech spaces in more responsible ways which will minimize the likelihood of them being placed in risky situations.

 

  • Remove fear of blame. Assure them that if they produce sexually explicit content as a result of being a victim of sextortion, they will not be legally charged with a crime and are not to blame.  Beyond prosecution, many young people fear being scolded, blamed, and loss of social media privileges when threats arise.

 

If they have become a victim of sextortion, have them tell you, a trusted adult, law enforcement and/or contact the CyberTipline of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children  ( http://www.missingkids.org/cybertipline or    1- 800 – 843-5678).

Sextortion is a growing epidemic affecting more and more who explore tech spaces.    Because of it’s growth a bill has been recently introduced to make sextortion a federal crime.  When you place your youngster in a position to explore in less risky ways, you decrease the chance they will be harmed, harassed, or affected by the issue of sextortion.

 References 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vendituoli, M. (2016, June 1). Freedom Christian Academy student charged in ‘sextortion’ case. Fayobserver.com. Retrieved from http://www.fayobserver.com/news/crime_courts/freedom-christian-academy-student-charged-in-sextortion-case/article_c8af6452-56d3-5c26-9480-ff48c51652e1.html

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