“Sextortion,” a form of sexual exploitation wherein many times teenagers are tricked and later forced to share sexually explicit images of themselves on the Internet, is on the rise. The FBI recently arrested 39-year-old Richard Finkbiner in Indiana, charging him with “sextorting” literally hundreds of teenagers, mostly teenage boys. Finkbiner allegedly extorted his victims into providing him with personal nude or otherwise sexually explicit images of them, threatening to expose such pictures to the world if his demands were not met. Pleaded one 14-year-old victim, “All I ask you for is to delete it please im onlyh 14 please just to this to somebody else not me please.”
This terribly personal crime is not limited to boys however. In 2010 Jonathan Vance of Alabama received an 18-year sentence after sending similarly threatening e-mails to over 50 different women in at least three states. In a similar vein, Luis Mijangos, age 31, was arrested in 2010 on like charges after he threatened to post nude photos he found on the personal computers he had managed to hack into. At least 44 of his victims were under 18, victims he demanded pose for even more sexually explicit videos. Earlier this year 21-year-old Trevor Shea of Mechanicsburg, MD was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison for blackmailing at least 10 girls between the ages of 13 and 16 into producing masochistic sexually explicit images and videos of themselves.
In recent years investigators have linked Internet postings to robbers, home invaders, rapists, murderers, and serial killers. Such criminals now use the Internet like it is their own private catalogue of potential victims, relaxing in their own homes as they callously search the world wide web for their next victim. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to such monsters because they are, at times, both naive to the danger that could await them on Internet back roads and because of their basic trusting nature. Internet sextortionists take advantage of the wide-eyed trust they find in such potential victims, with the victims themselves unwilling to understand that anything they post or pass on via the Internet is there forever, like a Scarlet letter that will always appear when their name and background is searched via the Internet.
While the main roads on the Internet are vastly superior to the old World Book Encyclopedia, there are traps and pitfalls that await anyone who strays from the straight and narrow of common sense to taste the forbidden fruit that can be just a mouse click away. Identity theft, computer fraud, hacking, cyberbullying (or bullycide), pornography, sexting and sextortion are just a few of the traps that predators can set for our children and for any unsuspecting adult.
A number of states have considered and some have enacted criminal statutes to deal with cyber related crimes, with some making sexting a crime, while other agencies like the FBI continue to use conventional extortion and crimes against children statutes to go after these online criminals. Where 20 years ago criminals who sought illicit contact with our children would hang around playgrounds and schools with a bag of candy or drugs, they now troll the Internet from the safety of their own homes.
In sexting, children and teenagers often take nude photos of themselves and post them on the Internet, photos that are quickly found by older sexual predators who post them to other adult Web sites, sell and trade them, and use them to seek out further Internet or even personal contact with their new victim. A recent survey by MTV and the AP reported that one-third of individuals ages 14 -24 have sent or received a “sext” message. About half of this number have taken nude photos or videos of themselves and shared these photos with someone else, many times with individuals the teenager only knows through online contact, therefore making it easy for adults to prey on such otherwise innocent victims.
In the case of the 39-year-old Indiana charged with sextortion, the FBI found thousands of explicit images, mostly teenage boys, on his computer. He appears to be a preferential predator; someone with a specific target group, in his case boys ages 14 – 16. Other Internet predators target girls or adult men and women. This same subject threatened one Michigan boy, “So u wanna play or b a famous gay porn star?” This predator is not alone; however, as the Internet also has sites that offer advice on how to sexually extort others and where explicit images obtained can be posted for maximum coverage.
As a society we are still using 19th and 20th century technology and laws to deal with 21st century crimes and, in this case, sexual predators. The loopholes are many and such predators know how to crawl through these technological tunnels to get to their next victim. While as parents and care givers we want our children to use every avenue offered them via the Internet, we also must help them understand the dangers that await anyone who strays from the main thoroughfares. While there may not be a predator behind every web site, NBC’s To Catch a Predator showed us that many such individuals search the Internet on an hourly basis, always seeking their next easy victim. This is a topic that schools, parents and caregivers need discuss with our children and that we, as adults, must be aware of. The Web provides an easy disguise for anyone who wants to appear to be something he is not. We need, as President Ronald Reagan once said, to “Trust but Verify,” especially in the case of those we meet as we electronically stroll along the Web.
For more information concerning personal and family safety and security, to obtain a free copy of our DVD "Protecting Children from Predators," and to find out the identity and location of sex offenders in your community, go to www.LiveSecure.org.