Popular social networking sites tout that 94% of teens are online with 43% percent of their online profiles set to “OPEN;” meaning that anyone can view profile contents. One popular site asserts that they have 400 million active users with that number doubling every six months. Considering these staggering numbers, crime is only limited by the human imagination.
One growing trend involves “SEXTORTION;” a practice of coercing an individual into sending sexually explicit images/videos and then using those images as leverage to compel the originator to send additional images/videos or even engage in sexual conduct. So, how does this happen?
Often, someone (suspect) creates a fake profile or chat posing as someone else who then makes a request to “friend” or otherwise have contact with the individual. The suspect sends a picture or video depicting the fake persona and requests return pictures/videos. Believing that he/she is sending a picture to a known friend, the victim snaps a few revealing images and hits send. The suspect then begins to threaten the victim. The victim is told to send more compromising pictures or the suspect will post the previous images on a porn site. He/she will often send links to the porn site in order to prove that he/she is serious about the threat. In an effort to further control the victim, the suspect often gathers information from social networking sites and then threatens to send the compromising pictures to parents, friends, etc.
This problem is further exacerbated by the growing trend of video chatting with complete strangers. One recent case involved a young girl visiting her friend’s home. The two girls decided to have some “fun” on the computer by striking up a video chat with an unknown person. The suspect began to flatter the young girls and encourage them to disrobe and pose in compromising positions. The girls agreed, believing their actions to be harmless, as they were communicating with a total stranger in another part of the country. The suspect captured the video images and began to threaten to disclose the girls’ escapades if they did not comply with his demands. Fortunately, an engaged parent learned of the situation and contacted law enforcement. The suspect was eventually arrested and the investigation revealed an additional 25 victims. The suspect reported that his “sextortion” strategies were successful about 85% of the time.
While the internet has many positive benefits, evolving trends remind us of the need to remain vigilant in our efforts to protect our young people. This challenge is too great for any single individual. As such, we must continue to strengthen and educate our community of support. Working together, we will be much better prepared for the evolving dynamics of “Cyber-life.”
Captain Marlowe is a 23 year veteran of the Virginia State Police, and currently serves as the commander of the Department’s High-Tech Crimes Division and the 43 agency, Northern Virginia/ District of Columbia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. His post graduate studies include a Masters of Arts in Security Studies – Homeland Security and Defense, from the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Administrative Officer’s Graduate Course at the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville.