How An Omniscient Internet “Sextortionist” Ruined The Lives Of Teen Girls
by: nate anderson
photo illustration by: christopher payne
In the spring of 2009, a college student named Amy received an instant message from someone claiming to know her. Certainly, the person knew something about her—he was able to supply details about what her bedroom looked like and he had, improbably, nude photos of Amy. He sent the photos to her and asked her to have “Web sex” with him.
Instead, Amy contacted her boyfriend Dave, who had been storing the naked photos on his own computer. (Note: victim names have been changed in this story). The two students exchanged instant messages about Amy’s apparent stalker, trying to figure out what had happened. Soon after the exchange, each received a separate threat from the man. He knew what they had just chatted about, he warned, and they were not to take their story to anyone, including the police.
Amy, terrified by her stalker’s eerie knowledge, contacted campus police. Officers were dispatched to her room, where they took down Amy’s story and asked her questions about the incident. Soon after, Dave received more threats from the stalker because Amy had gone to the police—and the stalker knew exactly what she had said to them.
Small wonder that, when the FBI later interviewed Amy about the case, she was “visibly upset and shaking during parts of the interview and had to stop at points to control her emotions and stop herself from crying.” So afraid was Amy for her own safety that she did not leave her dorm room for a full week after the threats.
As for Dave, he suffered increased fear, anxiety, confusion, and anger; he later told a court that even his parents “had a hard time trusting anyone or even feeling comfortable enough to use a computer” after the episode.
Due in large part to the stress of the attack, Dave and Amy broke up.
But who had the mysterious stalker been? And how did he have access both to the contents of Dave’s computer and to private discussions with police that Amy conducted in the privacy of her own room?
Why is my webcam light on?
The bizarre case wasn’t an isolated incident. Around the same time, a Los Angeles area juvenile named Sara received an instant message from a screen name that looked almost identical to her boyfriend’s. The person behind it asked her for pornographic photos; she supplied them. She soon realized her mistake, but it was too late. Threats began to roll in, saying that her mysterious interlocutor would post Sarah’s nude photos on the Internet if she did not send more. When Sara e-mailed copies of these threats to her boyfriend, the stalker knew. He even called her on the phone to make the threats more personal.
“For the longest time I didn’t know who this man was, why he was doing it or [if] he would come back,” Sara later wrote in a victim impact statement. “Not knowing is the worst, most dreaded feeling. It’s always in the back of your mind. I moved away from the LA/OC [Los Angeles/Orange County] area but even here the thoughts never left me.”
In another case, a woman named Gloria received an e-mail with the subject line “who hacked your account READ it!!!” from someone who claimed to have invaded her machine. Why? The hacker said it was because Gloria’s ex-boyfriend had hired him to do so—a “particularly traumatic” move, as the government later noted, because Gloria had actually taken out a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, who had been harassing her. Gloria didn’t reply to the e-mail and soon received another, this time containing a nude picture of her and promising to post it across the Internet if Gloria didn’t do as he wished.
It was one of the few cases where the stalker acted on his warning. After Gloria sent copies of these threats to a friend of hers, the stalker somehow knew about it and told her, “you pissed me off now I’m going to show you.” Her nude photo was posted to MySpace—appearing on the account of the friend to whom Gloria had shown the stalker’s threats.
The cases grew stranger. A 17-year old girl was online when she received an instant message from her sister—but her sister was in the next room and not using a computer. Various women reported that the lights on their laptop webcams would pop on at times when the cameras weren’t in use; one woman was so unnerved by the behavior that she covered her own computer’s camera with a sticker to make sure no one was spying on her.
But someone had been, and he went after so many people that Glendale, California police finally realized a broader pattern was emerging in their area. The FBI investigated and on March 8, 2010, after six months of investigations and interviews, obtained a federal search warrant for a small, neat home on Monica Lane in Santa Ana. Two days later, the feds descended, looking for their man.