It’s been called “sextortion,” and sex crime investigators said it’s becoming too common.
Earlier this week, the FBI confirmed it was investigating a case of alleged sextortion involving more than a dozen victims, including Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf of Temecula. The case has garnered national media attention and shed light on a form of sexual extortion that law enforcement officials are coming across more often each day. Victims are younger, and technology has made it easier for perpetrators to zero in on victims, officials said.
Using a sexually compromising photo or video, predators try to extort more images from victims. If the victims refuse, they threaten to publish the image online or email it to friends, family or classmates. The initial picture may not be pornographic, but risqué enough to cause embarrassment. But the predator pushes for more explicit pictures and, with a gradual bank of embarrassing images, extorts more from the victim.
“The goal is to get more images,” said Wade Walsvick, an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and a member of the Child Exploitation Task Force.
Wolf’s case is the most recent high-profile investigation involving sextortion, but officials said the practice has become very widespread, with predators using websites to trade images like currency, and some are amassing sexually explicit libraries of dozens of targeted victims.
“It’s a commodity,” Walsvick said. “They spend so much time getting new girls to do stuff, and acquiring as much as they can.”
Wolf told reporters someone hacked into her computer to turn its webcam on, but officials said most cases are not as sophisticated.
About two cases a month will come across Walsvick’s desk involving some sort of sextortion, he said, and many of them involve former boyfriends or friends who threaten victims when the relationship sours. Some of the cases involve suspects pretending to be someone else closer to the victim’s age, seeking them out in video chat rooms to record sexually compromising video.
Victims have been as young as 9 years old, he said.
“These are just normal kids,” he said.
In some cases, a perpetrator finds a video online and then seeks out the victim to extort new sexually explicit images, he said.
One of the most egregious cases he’s worked originated about six years ago, Walsvick said, when a 12-year-old victim went into a video chat.
“She engaged with a kid she thought was 12 years old,” Walsvick said. “That video has followed that young (girl) for six years.”
The explicit 10-minute video was posted on dozens of websites. The Orange County girl has been contacted about a dozen times in the last three years by predators who found the video and then contacted her online, he said.
“She went through four different high schools, five different junior highs, threats every other 10 months,” he said.
Walsvick has contacted multiple websites to have the video removed on the grounds that it is child pornography. He’s attempted to reach the person who originally posted it, but the video has continued to make its way through pornographic websites.
Some of the websites are taken down, only to resurface days later with another address.
Suspects can be blunt and forceful as well, Walsvick said. One victim received an email resembling a formal business letter, Walsvick said, asking for sexually explicit pictures or threatening to publish images. The suspect included links to the Facebook profiles of the victim’s relatives.
Some have gone through with the threat, he said, including one case in which the suspect emailed a nude picture to teachers at a girl’s school.
“They’re usually pretty ruthless because they don’t know them,” he said.
Last year, two sisters – ages 9 and 10 – told their parents someone was asking them to send sexual pictures through their iPod touch. After investigators were called, the girls’ parents told investigators they didn’t even know their daughters could connect online with their iPods.
The practice has expanded, making it more difficult for investigators to keep up. Authorities have found websites dedicated to the practice, complete with sexual videos, comment sections and links to the social network profiles of a victim. In the comment threads, some of the websites’ visitors make requests of what videos they’d like the perpetrator to obtain, Walsvick said.
“It’s just a different breed of bad guys,” he said.
The vast majority of victims tend to be girls, and the websites provide a way for many of them to be victimized repeatedly when they are contacted by new perpetrators.
Some suspects spend vast amounts of time trying to collect the material. After the parents of an Orange County high school student found suspicious texts on her phone in January, investigators began looking into the source.
Walsvick said officials found 33 teenage girls from the same Orange County high school were contacted by the same 17-year-old, whose profile included a picture of him posing in a bowling alley.
“It turned out to be a 38-year-old man who lived with his mother in Ohio,” Walsvick said.
Using the same lines of conversation with the girls, the man reached out to them via Facebook. The girls had first agreed to connect with him because he was friends – on Facebook – with common friends.
Most of the girls rebuffed his advances, he said, but the online conversations “showed what he was doing,” Walsvick said. “He was using the same lines with all 33 girls.”
In his home, investigators found a trove of pictures and images of young victims. Ohio authorities told Orange County officials they “had so much investigative material, so many girls, (they) just need to weed through it.”
Walsvick has investigated sex crimes for about 16 years, and many times parents are not aware of their child’s online activities, he said. They are also not aware how easy it may be for predators to target children for sexually explicit images and then extort them for more.
Throughout the school year, Walsvick and other investigators go to Orange County high schools and middle schools to educate parents about social media use, and the importance of parents keeping an eye on their child’s online interactions.
“I love talking to the parents because I figure, this is going to happen a lot because kids are going to be kids,” he said. “So I tell parents, it’s becoming upon you to monitor what your kids are doing. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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