Evil and innocence collided in the soft bluish glow of a cellphone.
Within seconds of hitting send, the photo she was dared to take became a weapon that would haunt the young teen’s life.
She had been used, betrayed by someone she thought was a boy her own age. They had spent weeks chatting and texting about everything from school to problems at home.
He knew her well: She shared increasingly intimate details about who she was, where she lived, the fights with her parents.
But he was a mirage — empathetic stories contrived by an adult and carefully calculated to draw her into a world of exploitation that law enforcement authorities in central Illinois and across the nation see as a rising threat.
That single picture would be the genesis of increasingly graphic threats and demands.
Online extortion is unfortunately nothing new, and has been growing in the wake of more people working from home and spending more time on computers, tablets and smartphones. Unlike quick-hit schemes that threaten to expose private details of adult users, the nature of child sexual exploitation is particularly heinous because it targets underage victims with threats that can last months or years.
The goal still can be financial gain, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it can be even more nefarious — from creating child pornography to enticing children for sexual acts.
There are concentrated efforts by local, state and federal law enforcement authorities to attack the problem, but it is growing at an alarming pace. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recorded 19,174 reports of online enticement in 2019; that number jumped 97.5% in 2020, to 37,872.
Some 78% of the victims were girls. Some were as young as 8.
It isn’t slowing, either. Dark recesses of the internet even serve as “training grounds” for those who hide behind the cloak of anonymity to discuss their methods and swap photos and videos like trading cards.
“Let’s just say for the Springfield greater metropolitan area, if you threw every law enforcement entity that we have into addressing just this one violation, we wouldn’t even scratch the surface,” Springfield FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Shannon Fontenot said.
Preying on fear
It is a manipulative game of degrees in many cases, which can start with contact from someone posing as another young person. From that initial communication, trust is established and built upon — authorities refer to it as “grooming” — with gifts, money, flattery, lies or other methods, according to the FBI.
“It’s a crime that involves an adult coercing a minor to create or send explicit images or videos of themselves or others around their age. It can take place in many different ways, mostly through electronic mechanisms. As our society and our kids become more familiar with technology and we become more technologically dependent, it also trickles down to our children, and that’s usually the avenue in which they use to coerce these minors,” Fontenot said.
Predators are skilled at culling what authorities call P.I.I., personal identifying information, and using it against children without them realizing it.
“They present a falsehood, an online presence, that can mislead the child into believing that it is a trusted person, whether it’s the same age, same sex, same demographic, whether it is race, or even whatever religion that they are, they’ll use to create a false bond with this child, and then it progresses from there,” Fontenot said. “The perpetrator will often use images from previous victims to lead the child into a false sense of security, ‘hey, you and me are just alike, we’re in the same situation, we’re the same age, we are faced with the same struggles’ and then it’s kind of this you-and-me bond.”
Eventually comes a request for a sexual photo or video.
The line of betrayal is crossed.
After the criminal has one or more videos or pictures comes a threat to share that content or the threat of violence to get the victim to produce more images.
Like the common thread of adult exploitation, there can be threats to send the photos or videos to family or friends. There may be a demand for money, but often the pressure is for more, and increasingly explicit, material. Sometimes the predators will claim, wrongly, that the victims will get in trouble for sharing the images.
Shame or fear can prevent the victim from telling anyone what is happening.
A teen trapped
Ashley Reynolds was 14 when she got the first message from someone claiming to have nude photos of her.
She ignored it. Her tormenter persisted, demanding she send more and more photos in exchange for protecting her reputation.
She complied, hoping it would end. It didn’t.
“I remember just lying in bed in silence and just thinking. I felt like God was so disappointed in me, and I didn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t get home until late at night and then I’d have to send him all these pictures. And as I’m doing this, he would be like, ‘No this isn’t right. This one is blurry.’ or ‘You didn’t do this right, you weren’t doing it right, you gotta do it again’,” she said. “That’s where being a slave to him comes in, because I had to make sure I complied and I sent him all this because, one, maybe tomorrow I’ll get a break. I’ll get a day off tomorrow if I just do all these right. I never wanted to send them or give him what he wanted, but I wanted my freedom, I guess. So I figured the only way to do that is if I do it right, but nothing was ever right.”
Reynolds, now in her 20s, has gone public with her story in the hope of preventing someone else from being trapped.
In her case, it was months later that her parents found out what was happening.
She was embarrassed, but relieved.
They contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Eventually, investigators determined Reynolds was one of almost 600 boys and girls who had fallen into the trap of a man federal authorities identified as Michael Lucas Chansler. The St. Johns County, Florida, man was sentenced in 2015 to 105 years in prison for coercing about 590 children to send him pornographic pictures of themselves, using hundreds of aliases in what Jacksonville, Florida, FBI Special Agent in Charge Michelle Klimt at the time said was one of the largest sextortion cases ever prosecuted.
Chansler was 31 when he was sentenced.
Jacksonville, Florida, FBI Special Agent Larry Meyer, who led the investigation, said even those who had been investigating such cases for years had never experienced anything like it before.
“Several of the instances, I think in one Stickcam video, we have four girls all exposing their breasts. They were apparently having a sleepover and he contacted one of them and, again, these four young girls thought they were having a conversation, a video chat session … with a 15-year-old boy they’d never see or hear from again. So they’re all there exposing their breasts, not realizing he’s doing a screen capture, and then he’s coming back later — very often in a different persona — saying, ‘hey, I’ve got these pictures of you, and if you don’t want these sent to all your friends or posted on the internet, you are going to do all these poses for me’,” Meyer said. “That’s how a lot of times these young girls got on this slippery slope of what would be a relatively benign picture … to fulfilling his perverted desires.”
Chansler was an egregious example, but just one of dozens upon dozens of cases.
Many had fairly PG-13 beginnings.
”Usually, once they have the first image, even though it may not be as sexually explicit, it becomes a snowball effect until it gets out of control. And then (it’s used to) manipulate the child, whether by threatening or blackmailing,” Fontenot said.
No safe haven
There is no one app or online site that poses a risk.
There also is no truly safe haven. Law enforcement officials have seen victims from all social and economic walks of life, from troubled teens to straight-A students.
“Regardless of if you’re talking about a $20,000 home income or a $1 million income, all children are in need of some kind of social connection, regardless of whether it’s electronic or in person. So anybody can be a victim,” Fontenot said.
And as the ability to communicate with almost anyone almost anywhere grows, the risk increases for younger and younger children. Law enforcement officials once geared their warnings to freshmen and sophomores in high school; now they are reaching into elementary schools.
“Every individual that is probably over 8 years old has access to some sort of electronic communication device. Especially over the past year, we’ve seen these younger children sitting in front of some type of screen longer,” Fontenot said. “The more and more dependent our society gets on electronic communication and devices … this is always going to be be a rising threat. It’s an endless pool of victims for these predators, because there are always kids. Tomorrow there’s gonna be another kid that gets online for the first time, the day after that, there’s gonna be another, and another, and another,” Fontenot said.
The best defense is for parents to be engaged about their child’s online presence.
”You have to get your arms wrapped around it, your head wrapped around it, and understand what they are doing. A lot of parents don’t understand what an avenue this communication is for children. … This is where children get their self-worth,” Fontenot said.
He said it is important to have discussions about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and not be afraid to monitor what is going on.
That’s even more important now because of the changes the pandemic has caused to the norm for children, parents and families.
Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, said in an article for Scientific American that the reality of being home during the pandemic is that adults are busy and sometimes distracted.
“They are struggling to balance the competing needs of managing their own mental health and supporting their children. Luckily there are simple ways they can protect their kids. Even one conversation can have an impact,” he said. “Parents should have candid talks with their children and take a non-judgmental stance.”
”Shame is a dangerous factor here and can lead kids to hide risky online interactions while they escalate,” he writes. “Shame also thrives on silence.”