The FBI is urging computer users — young teens and parents of those teens — to take precautions to help prevent becoming victims of "sextortion," where criminals use social networks to gain users' trust, convincing them to send lewd or pornographic photos or videos, then threatening to share them widely if more photos aren't sent.
In one recent case, a 13-year-old girl pleaded with a man who had initially gained her trust that she did not want to take her shirt off in front of a webcam, telling the extortionist she had "a life, please do not ruin it," the FBI said in a release. But eventually, stricken with fear, the teen gave into his demands.
That man, Christopher Patrick Gunn, of Montgomery, Ala., was sentenced last month to 35 years in prison for producing child pornography through his massive online sextortion scheme, the FBI said.
For more than two years, he gained the trust of girls in a half-dozen states and in Ireland by using two ruses. One was the "new kid" approach. He created a fake Facebook profile, and posted in messages to the girls that he was new in the area and looking to make friends, said the FBI. "Once he established a level of trust, he began making demands."
In the second ruse, he pretended to be Justin Bieber on various video chat services, including Skype. (Gunn, in his 30s, does not look like the teen heartthrob, so he may have only been using text chat on the services.) Once Gunn convinced the teens he was Bieber, the FBI says, "he offered them free concert tickets or backstage passes in exchange for topless photos or webcam videos."
With either ploy, Gunn "got to know everything about the girls — their friends’ names, their schools, their parents’ names — it was like a script," Erik Doell, a special agent in the FBI’s Montgomery office who investigated the case, said in the release. "Once he got a picture, the girls would just go along with it. They would do whatever they could to keep their reputations intact."
Frighteningly, the Gunn case is hardly an isolated one.
Just last week, the FBI arrested a 27-year-old Los Angeles-area man who they say tricked women into posing nude on Skype's video chat service. The man, Karen "Gary" Kazaryan, is believed to have hacked into hundreds of women's Facebook accounts, looking at them for naked pictures. He then took on the persona of some of the women and persuaded their friends to send naked photos of themselves or appear nude on Skype, the U.S. Attorney's office said in a statement.
Also last week, an Indiana man, Richard Finkbiner, agreed to plead guilty to charges that he tricked more than a dozen teens into stripping or performing sexual acts via webcam, then using recordings of the sessions to coerce them into making even more explicit videos. He faces a sentence of 30 to 50 years in prison. (NBC News' Alex Johnson wrote about this case in 2012.)
The FBI has issued a list of "precautions" users should take when on the Internet, but really, they come off as baseline safety tips for those who aren't familiar with the Internet:
- Cover your webcam when you're not using it.
- Turn off your computer when you're not using it.
- Don't assume your anti-virus software will be a guarantee against a digital intruder.
- Don't open attachments without checking, first-hand, that they were sent to you from someone you know. "If you receive a message with an attachment from your mother at 3 a.m., maybe the message is not really from your mother," the FBI says, urging that teens be more suspicious online.
- Finally, if your computer has been compromised, or if you are receiving extortion threats, "don't be afraid" to talk to your parents or to police, the agency says.
Sextortion isn't just about letting a criminal get into your computer; it's about letting them get into your head. The first line of defense is not falling prey to social engineering. If someone has gained your trust without you really checking them out, no amount of computer security will keep them out.
And when that trust turns to fear, these criminals can get anything they want. Not letting them in — psychologically, as well as digitally — can make a huge difference in what happens to a young person's life.