‘Sextortion’ is an online ‘epidemic’ against children

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The number of complaints of online enticement of children is climbing. The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which helps state and local law enforcement agencies fight online child pornography, reports that the number of complaints to its 61 offices nationwide has grown from 5,300 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2013.(Photo: Sam Ward)

Unemployed high school dropout Tremain Hutchinson spent a lot of time talking to young girls on Tagged.com, a teen chat site.

Sometimes he was "Mario," sometimes "Quan" or "Money," but Hutchinson, 28, always pretended to be a cute 16-year-old Georgia boy. He used a photo of a younger cousin in the profiles.

He was interested in girls 11 to 17. Race or economic background didn't matter.

His opening line was always the same: " What's up? You be my freak once a month. I will spoil you, buy you a cell phone, keep your bill paid. Hair, nails done. Buy you shoes, clothes, whatever you want."

Dozens of girls responded. One of them was a 15-year-old girl in the Atlanta area who has regretted it ever since, her father says.

Hutchinson enticed the girl to send naked photos. Then he turned vicious.

For weeks, he pressed her for more images. He threatened to post her nude photos online. He threatened to kill her and her parents and blow up her house.

Every time she begged him to leave her alone, he told her he would if she did one more thing. Then came the day he ordered her to do something so unthinkable, it led federal investigators to his door.

A crime of the digital age

It's called "Sextortion," a crime exclusive to the digital age. Predators pretend to be teens on social media and gaming sites. They befriend young people, gain their trust and entice them to send lewd photos of themselves. Then they use the photos to extort more and more illicit images.

The number of complaints of online enticement of children is climbing. The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which helps state and local law enforcement agencies fight online child pornography, reports that the number of complaints to its 61 offices nationwide has grown from 5,300 in 2010 to 7,000 in 2013.

A USA TODAY investigative series on the Dark Web(Photo: Jerry Mosemak)

The crime has serious, even deadly, ramifications for children, say the parents of some who were victims.

Canadian Amanda Todd was one of the earliest and ultimately most prominent victims.

When she was 13, in 2010, the Vancouver-area girl used video chats to meet other teens. She became friends with someone who talked her into showing her breasts during a webcam chat. She did. It was a fleeting moment, something she did on impulse. She didn't know he had taken a photo.

Shortly after, the person messaged her via Facebook and said if she didn't show him more, he'd post her photo for others to see. He messaged her several times. When she didn't do it, the photo went to all her Facebook friends.

She was ridiculed and so embarrassed that she changed schools. She became anxious and depressed. She was teased by schoolmates and harassed online.

In a cry for help, Amanda told her story in a poignant nine-minute video in September 2012. "I have nobody," she said on the video. "I need someone."

A month later, she committed suicide.

The video has gone viral with more than 30 million views.

Six months ago, Dutch police arrested Aydin Coban, 35, and accused him of extorting Amanda and dozens of other girls, as well as adult men, in Canada, the United States, Britain and the Netherlands.

"In the back of my mind, I never thought of a predator," says her mother, Carol Todd. "I thought the person who wanted the pictures was an older teen. I was never thinking it was a 35-year-old man on the other end.

"I've learned about the whole dark world that's out there on the Internet."

She tells her daughter's story as a cautionary tale, urging parents to talk often with their teens about how they lead their virtual lives.

The increase in sextortion cases has led authorities to go beyond law enforcement to also educate parents and teens about online safety. Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has started a program called iGuardian in which agents visit elementary, middle and high schools.

They use real-life examples to warn kids never to send nude photos of themselves electronically or share identifying information such as their school or address.

"Predators used to stalk playgrounds. This is the new playground," says Brock Nicholson, HSI special agent in charge in Atlanta. "I would argue that this is an epidemic and people have no idea."

What sets this crime apart is that one suspect can victimize hundreds of children anywhere in the world, says Patrick Redling, head of the child exploitation unit at HSI's Cyber Crimes Center.

Victims suffer emotionally

Tremain Hutchinson was arrested in April 2012 for what a federal judge called at his sentencing "a six-month reign of terror" online against young girls.(Photo: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office)

From his mother's apartment in suburban Atlanta, Hutchinson was targeting dozens of victims, most in Georgia, says HSI special agent Tony Scott, who investigated the case in the spring of 2012. After his arrest, Scott says, Hutchinson admitted to raping four girls, several of whom he met on online while pretending to be a teenage boy. The youngest rape victim was 11. Authorities had no idea until the family of the 15-year-old girl came forward.

USA TODAY does not name victims of sexual abuse. To protect the identity of the victim, her name and her father's name are being withheld.

The girl met someone who told her he was 15 on Tagged.com, her father says. They talked for a week or so before the boy asked for a partially nude photo. The girl sent it.

When Hutchinson demanded more explicit photos, she balked, her father says. Hutchinson threatened to have her beaten up in school and said vaguely at one point, "You don't want to end up like the other girl" who didn't give in to his demands.

Then he ordered her to do the unthinkable: Perform oral sex on her 13-year-old brother and send a photo.

She panicked and told her brother. They staged a photo, pretending to do what he ordered, her father says, and sent it to Hutchinson.

"She felt that if she sent the picture, he would leave her alone," her father says. "It's easy to ask why she didn't go to her parents, but you aren't in that situation. You are not in the mind of a 15-year-old girl.

"She was genuinely afraid," he says. "She thought she could handle it, and it got out of control."

Amy Allen, a forensics interview specialist at Homeland Security Investigations who talks with victims, says preteens and teenagers are targets of predators because they are at an age where they experiment sexually and take risks, but their brains are still developing and they can make bad decisions.

The girl's pretense didn't work. Hutchinson became angry that the photo was not graphic enough, the girl's father says, and sent the photo back. She wasn't using her own phone, because it couldn't send pictures — and he knew it.

The photo went to her aunt, who ran to the girl's mother. Thinking her daughter was molesting her son, the mother called the police. The truth soon came out.

Hutchinson was charged with extorting 16 child victims, including the four rape victims and three sets of siblings that he ordered to engage in sexual activities.

"The guy was a terrorist," Scott says. "He terrorized these children. That's the only term for this."

Hutchinson pleaded guilty in December to several charges and was sentenced to life in prison for what the judge called "a reign of terror."

The crime has taken an emotional toll, the girl's father says. His son, who never had direct contact with Hutchinson, was angry but has been able to move on.

His daughter, though, talked about suicide, began cutting herself and went into therapy. Her grades plummeted. Her relationship with her parents and brother, once close, fractured.

She has gone to live with relatives in another state.

"She just wanted to get away," her father says.

At Hutchinson's sentencing in December, her father and parents of the other victims told heartbreaking tales of suicidal girls who barely went out, no longer had friends and in one case refused to bathe, thinking that would make her less attractive to men.

The father of the 15-year-old spoke for all of them when he told the defendant, "You have left a permanent scar on my family."

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