After Alaska teen's murder, cybersecurity experts warn of catfishing predators

“Young people tend to be more trusting, which makes them more vulnerable to these types of frauds,” cybersecurity expert Ahmed Banafa said.
Image: Cynthia Hoffman, 19, was found dead along a river bank near Thunderbird Falls in Alaska on June 4, 2019.
Cynthia Hoffman, 19, was found dead along a riverbank near Thunderbird Falls in Alaska on June 4, 2019.via Facebook

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By Safia Samee Ali

The arrest of an Alaska teenager who allegedly killed her best friend after a man posing online as a millionaire offered her money for murder has brought new attention to the dangers of catfishing, particularly for young people, experts say.

Denali Brehmer, 18, was charged in the murder of Cynthia Hoffman, 19, whom Brehmer and another teen allegedly shot in an Alaska park earlier this month. Prosecutors say Brehmer made the plan to kill Hoffman after the man promised to pay her millions for evidence of her murdering someone.

Authorities say Darin Schilmiller, 21, of Indiana, created a fake online persona as a millionaire from Kansas named “Tyler” and began a relationship with Brehmer. It quickly progressed to “I love you’s” and the two called each other “babe” over text messages, according to court documents.

Schilmiller eventually convinced Brehmer to commit murder and sexual assault and send him photos and videos of the crimes in exchange for $9 million, authorities said. It was after the teen committed the horrific crimes that she found out she had been catfished by Schilmiller, they said.

Catfishing is when a person creates a fake online identity in order to deceive someone into a relationship.

Although internet predators are pervasive, cybersecurity experts say, young people aren't always attuned to red flags because so many of their relationships are online that they don't think to question an individual's veracity. The line between real life and virtual life becomes blurred, they say.

"Young people tend to be more trusting, which makes them more vulnerable to these types of frauds,” said Ahmed Banafa, a professor and cybersecurity expert at San Jose State University.

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For millennials and younger kids, the online experience is such a crucial part of their life that there becomes “a blurred line between real life and virtual life,” he said. “They jump between the two worlds very easily without realizing how risky it is to do that.”

In the online world, there is no way to verify who is on the other end, he said. With filters and photoshopping, it becomes easy to turn yourself into whomever the other person wants you to be, he added.

For example, Schilmiller allegedly sent Brehmer photos of another person that he said were of him, according to court documents.

It’s hard for young people to see red flags in online relationships because they are so used to communicating over technology, said Nathan Wenzler, the senior director of cybersecurity at the management firm Moss Adams. “When someone reaches out to them online, they don’t think much of it because everyone around them is doing the same thing.”

Because of the sheer volume of data breaches over the last few years, predators have more personal information than ever, making it easier for them to initiate contact, he added.

"If I'm a predator, I can now approach someone with a great deal of information, like their parents’ names or an address, and that makes me sound legitimate and familiar," he said. “That’s how they get in.”

According to FBI data, almost 20,000 people reported being victims of romance or confidence fraud, in which a perpetrator deceives someone into believing they have a trust relationship, whether it's friendly or romantic.

While it can seem almost impossible to completely regulate a young person's internet use, there are some ways to educate kids by giving them signs to watch out for, Banafa said. Be wary of online friends who ask you to go from one platform to another, such as moving from Tinder to text messaging or especially Snapchat, because those messages disappear, he said.

Watch for people who ask you to meet quickly or seem to get attached early on, he added.

It also helps to do some cross-referencing and research on an individual, he said. Check other social media platforms to see if they come up.

Wenzler echoes the advice and adds steps that parents themselves can take.

"Keep communication open, be engaged, and understand the technology your kids are using," he said.

"Even today, parents are a little behind the curve on what kind of communication platforms are out there," he said. "Staying up on that is really good so you know what your kids are using and can ask them about it."