Cleveland FBI warns of rise in sexual predators targeting children, adults in online sextortion

CLEVELAND - The Cleveland FBI has found that sexual predators are getting more creative in deceiving people online and that no one is exempt from being targeted.

The most common targets are children.

“We're seeing a trend in which you've got a lot of younger kids - pre-teens, 10, 11, 12 years old - who are online, talking to people they don't know,” said Special Agent Kelly Liberti. “And we teach our kids at a very, very young age about stranger danger, but that also applies to online if you don't know who these folks are.”

Liberti said more Northeast Ohioans are coming to the FBI and explaining that they or their children were fooled online by a predator.

Liberti explained that the most alarming part of these cases is how easily it is for children to become victimized. Today’s normalized online behavior is a breeding ground for predators.

Predators will use popular social media networks, like Facebook and Snapchat, but create fake accounts so they can appear to be a young boy or girl looking for friends.

“What we have seen is it's so easy to take a picture of anybody and say, ‘This is me’,” Liberti said. “So for our kids, one of the biggest things we've seen recently is we'll have subjects just scroll through Facebook to find a picture of a young kid that they like. They'll send a message and say, 'Hey, you're cute,' 'Hey, let's be friends - friend me,' and that's how it starts. So our young kids… think that they are talking to another teenager.”

Typically, the predator will start a casual, seemingly innocent online conversation with the child, all while hiding behind the cyber disguise of another teen.

“What we're seeing is a trend in which adults will go online, pretending to be teenage girls, in order to entice a… boy or girl into chatting with them and then taking that conversation, developing that friendship, then taking it further online to the point where they're actually producing videos,” Liberti said.

But the conversations will become flirty, and eventually the predator will push the child to take part in compromising behavior in front of a web camera.

“What parents need to realize is once these conversations, once these relationships start, the most common thing that we're seeing is the kids going from a social media app, like Facebook, over to Skype, where now we're using web cams, and if you're got a bad guy on the other end of that web cam, there's a very good chance he's got some software that's allowing him to record his screen,” Liberti said. “So, as your child is talking with that bad guy, he or she is probably being recorded.”

There are certain things that predators look for online to target children as victims.

“Some of these kids are targeted because of simply they have a cute picture posted online,” Liberti said. “Some of these kids are targeted because they posted something that says, 'I just broke up with my boyfriend or my girlfriend,' or, 'I'm really mad at my parents,' or something along that line that kind of indicates that an outside influence might really work well at that time.”

But, more alarmingly, sometimes what attracts predators is even more innocuous.

"Some kids are targeted simply because of their screenname. Our screennames say a lot about us,” Liberti noted. “So if we're using a screenname on an app or on Facebook or on anything else that has our name, our age, your school logo, your school mascot, it's a very good indication to predators that you're a minor.”

For instance, a child may have a screenname of “John12,” and Liberti explained there is a good chance a predator will assume the user is a 12-year-old boy, and then focus on that user a possible victim.

While many people meet plenty of normal people online, after a conversation becomes flirty, there are certain red flags they should look out for during their online communications.

“They meet on Facebook, they take that relationship over to Skype,” Liberti said. “The bad guy will say something along the lines of, 'My webcam's broken - you've seen pictures of me, you know what I look like, so you just talk to me and I'll talk back or I'll type back.' And so we do see a lot of that where the young person is talking on camera and the person on the other side is only typing back to cloak their identity.”

Liberti said predators will coerce children into performing sexually explicit acts on a web camera and record it.

“The videos that are produced, sometimes people will use those for their own collection, and sometimes they'll be out in cyber space forever,” she said. “It depends on the person on the other end, it depends on the predator(s) and what their ultimate goal is, whether to produce videos for themselves or whether to produce videos that they can sell online to other people with similar interests.”

Sometimes the predator may use the video for personal use or sell it online, but other times the video can be used against the victim, in so-called “sextortion" cases.

“Very common for someone to get to that point where you think you're talking with another person and you go into Skype where... the perpetrator asks that child or teenager to do a sexual act on camera, and then they'll turn it around and try and extort money,” Liberti explained. “Typically, they'll meet on Facebook or an app where all your friends are listed, so it's real easy to say, 'Hey, I already have all your friends - if you don't pay me this money, I'm going to release this video’.”

Money is not always the end goal of the predator. Sometimes they use the web videos to strong-arm the victim into meeting in person for sexual blackmail.

But it is not just children drawn in by these charades.

"We're not talking just pre-teens and teenagers; this can go up into adults and young adults as well,” Liberti said.

Even the most skeptical adults can fall prey to these tricks because some predators are using advanced technology.

“There are several predators in different countries who have gotten so savvy at this that they actually have videos of women - not even real women, doing certain gestures... to pretend they're a real person, saying certain phrases,” Liberti said. “People don't even realize they're not talking to a real person until that person flips their screen around and says, 'I just made a video of you, this is not a real girl.' It's really some guy in a different country, he now wants you to wire money to him, or he's going to release this video on your Facebook page.”

As technology advances, predators have become more savvy, and the FBI has seen an increase of them preying on victims, young and old, so agents are warning everyone to be extra vigilant online, especially parents.

“It can happen anywhere. You can meet anyone online,” Liberti said. “You can meet anyone through an app. Our kids are using all these different game apps that are fine. But a lot of these game apps have a random opponent option, so you can hit random opponent and start playing someone in a game you don't know. Again, that's another way predators look for victims.”

Victims of online “sextortion” cases or any instances of child pornography should contact the Cleveland FBI at its website or call 216-522-1400.

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