Heather knew there were adults on the Internet who preyed on kids, and she regularly warned her own four children about the dangers of talking to strangers online. Yet the 37-year-old married mom from Phoenix never thought she would ever fall victim to a growing Internet crime known as sextortion.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) classifies sextortion as a form of online blackmail where explicit images are used to extort additional photos, sexual favors, and sometimes money from victims. It can involve hacking into a victim’s computer or “catfishing” — where predators lure unsuspecting victims into online relationships and coerce them into sharing nude photos or videos. A 2016 report from the Brookings Institute found that sextortion is on the rise, and noted that isn’t “a matter of playful consensual sexting,” but rather “a form of sexual exploitation, coercion and violence.”
Heather’s sextortion ordeal began shortly after her family settled in Phoenix. Moving to a new town in a different state proved more stressful than she had anticipated, and she struggled to make new friends. To complicate matters, she and her husband of 11 years were going through a rough patch in their marriage. Feeling depressed and alone, Heather turned to Twitter as a social outlet.
Soon, she started connecting with other users, including Dan*, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who shared Heather’s love of music.
“We were both big fans of The Who and our conversations started with banter about the band and evolved from there,” Heather says. “I was upfront about being married, but Dan was smart and funny, and talking with him filled a void in my life.”
It didn’t take long for Dan to move the conversation from the public Twitter timeline to communicating discreetly with Heather through private direct messages. He told Heather she was beautiful, smart, and funny, and he listened to her problems. Over the course of several months, Dan went from being the perfect friend and confidante to positioning himself as the perfect lover.
[Dan] told Heather she was beautiful, smart and funny, and he listened
to her problems.
“After a month of exchanging intense messaging several times a day, Dan asked me for a more revealing photo,” Heather says. “By then, our conversations had gone from friendly chats to sexting.”
At first she hesitated. She had never sent anyone a nude photo, but Dan was different. He made Heather feel alive and desirable in a way she hadn’t felt in years. He was articulate, charming, and perhaps more importantly, he provided her with the appreciation and attention she wasn’t getting at home. He also agreed to send her photos of himself. Heather later learned the images weren’t actually of Dan, but of someone else.
Carefully Choosing Smart, Empathetic Targets
Terry M. Evans is president of Cybersleuth Investigations, Inc., a Buffalo, New York firm that specializes in helping victims of sextortion and other cybercrimes. He describes the techniques used to gain Heather’s trust as “grooming.”
“Perpetrators like Dan often research their victims in advance so they can quickly engage them by sharing similar interests and viewpoints,” says Evans, who has a background in both law enforcement and cybersecurity. “They gain their victim’s trust by providing a sympathetic ear and by using overt attention, flattery, and charm.”
Many victims blame themselves. But Evans says that compared with perpetrators of Nigerian prince scams, for example, who often use broken English and implausible premises, this new breed of online predator is far savvier and more dangerous. And while you might expect to find catfishers on dating sites, Evans routinely handles cases where victims have been approached on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media sites.
“Everyone has the need to feel loved and these online predators are very good at what they do,” Evans says. “They choose women who may be vulnerable or going through a hard time in their life.”
While a victim’s emotions may serve to cloud their judgment and lead them to explain away inconsistencies in their predator’s story, Evans stresses that in no way does that mean any victim is at fault.
As someone who was having marital problems at the time, Heather was more open to Dan’s advances. Shortly after she sent Dan several photos, though, she noticed a shift in their online relationship. She suspected Dan wasn’t being completely honest with her, and sensed he was trying to manipulate her into leaving her husband.
“Dan became very insistent and tried to convince me my husband was abusive and a bad person,” Heather says. “While we had our problems, I knew he was a good person and a loving husband and father.”
As she pulled away from Dan, he became more insistent and threatened to post the intimate photos Heather had sent him, plus additional ones he had Photoshopped using her images. Heather became frightened and went to the police, but found they could offer her little in terms of help.
As she pulled away from Dan, he became more insistent and threatened
to post the intimate photos Heather had sent him.
In the interim, Dan’s intensity escalated. He hacked into Heather’s Twitter account and began posting her images.
“Some of my friends on Twitter began pushing back and threatening to expose Dan as a catfish,” Heather says. “One friend used the information Dan had given me and traced his account.”
The truth was shocking: Dan wasn’t a handsome, successful, 28-year-old entrepreneur, but rather a married man in his mid-60s. When Heather’s friend threatened to expose him publicly, Dan backed down and removed Heather’s images. Later, she learned he had also been catfishing several other women on Twitter.
“Years ago, I was raped and I experienced the same feelings of being sexually violated,” Heather says. “Again, it was done by someone I thought I could trust, but the difference is this time, the exploitation was made public.”
“Years ago, I was raped and I experienced the same feelings of being
sexually violated… [T]his time, the exploitation was made public.”
A Beauty Queen Gets Hacked
In 2013, Cassidy Wolf of Temecula, California, received an email demanding that she either email nude photos of herself to an anonymous account, or agree to do whatever the email sender asked via Skype for five minutes. The perpetrator said that if she declined, he would release photos of Wolf undressing that he had obtained by hacking her webcam.
Wolf, who was crowned Miss Teen USA in 2013, admits she was scared. But after she talked with her parents, her family decided the best course of action was to alert local law enforcement. The police informed Wolf that her webcam and computer had indeed been compromised.
“Apparently, this person had hacked one of my friend’s Facebook accounts and anyone who clicked on a specific link downloaded malware that allowed him access to their email, webcams, and social media accounts,” Wolf says.
Wolf’s personal computer was in her bedroom, and she learned that in order to remain safe, she should put tape over the camera.
“He had footage of me undressing in my bedroom, and he continued to email me threats, saying he would post those photos online if I didn’t do what he asked,” Wolf says. “The police advised me not to respond.”
Four months after the initial email she received, the FBI arrested Jared James Abrahams, a 19-year-old student. He was charged with hacking into the computers of multiple women and obtaining webcam footage of them in various states of undress, without their consent or knowledge. According to the U.S. State Attorney’s office for the Central District of California, he may have hacked as many as 150 women.
Wolf didn’t know her perpetrator, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison, but she feels lucky she had her family’s support and didn’t give in to his demands.
“I know one of the victims didn’t have anyone to talk with and tried to handle it on her own,” Wolf says. “She felt she had no choice but to give in to his demands or have her photos spread across the Internet.”
“She felt she had no choice but to give in to his demands or have her
photos spread across the Internet.”
Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn, New York-based attorney who is considered a pioneer in the field of sexual privacy, sees many cases like Wolf’s. She says the primary motivation for perpetrators is a desire for control, and explains that victims often give in to extortion demands because they’re afraid of being shamed by their family, friends, or peers.