One day after a Michigan man was sent to federal prison for cyber stalking 18 Western New York girls - including blackmailing them into creating inappropriate photos - local law enforcers are warning parents and youngsters alike about how vulnerable one can be on the internet.
U.S. Attorney William Hochul referred to his Tuesday morning news conference in downtown Buffalo as the "start of a conversation" about protecting minors online. He acknowledged many benefits provided by the internet, including a means to connect with friends and loved ones, education and entertainment.
But he added that the internet has a dark side where minors can fall prey to people like James Allen, who was sentenced to 22 years for using the internet to hack into accounts, lure friends of an original victim through a "phishing" website, and blackmail his victims into creating illicit and compromising photos by threatening to expose other discovered pictures publicly.
"In this respect, it has in fact increased the threat to our children, not only from the man who may be down the street but in fact from anyone in the world who has the devious nature of James Allen," Hochul said.
Allen's tricks included hacking into a victim's social media accounts, acquiring an older, perhaps racy photo, then threatening to expose that photo widely unless the victim submitted to creating more illicit photos. Allen also created an identical version of a legitimate photo-sharing website, then reached out under the identity of a victim to her friends to encourage joining the site. That, in turn, gave Allen access to their personal information.
"It (the site) was emailing those credentials to him, so he could go into the AOL account, the Yahoo! account, the Gmail account for these girls and find those images that they may have sent to their boyfriend, a year or two years ago, that they though they took and would never see again," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango.
Officials say parents need to have a frank discussion with their kids about the pictures they take and messages they post. It is minors who are especially vulnerable to having older, questionable photos that seemed like fun at the time come back to haunt them later in life.
"We did a recent analysis on 'sextortion' cases that have been reported to the Center," said Ed Suk, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "In about 70 percent of these situations, the victim is a female. The average age for the victim is about 15.
"By far, the motivating factor on the part of the offender is to gain additional contraband, additional content."
Hochul told reporters parents don't have to have a lengthy conversation with their kids about cyber stalking, necessarily, but to have the conversation and continuously repeat it. Others in attendance added some simple advice to prevent the risk of exposure and future problems: don't take racy photos.
"Before you hit the send button, before you craft a tweet, before you post a message, before you send an email, think about your grandmother," said Holly Hubert, Assistant Special-Agent-In-Charge with the FBI in Buffalo. "If your grandmother's OK to see that message, then it's OK to send it. If you wouldn't want your grandmother to see it, then you probably shouldn't send it."