Homeland Security Investigations is looking into a possible Myrtle Beach area case of “sextortion” – a fairly new and growing crime that targets teenagers through their use of social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram.
As social networking grows, experts say, so does the opportunity for predators to contact children, gain their trust and then blackmail them into engaging in sex or sending lewd photos of themselves over the Internet.
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a Justice Department program that helps state and local law enforcement battle sexual exploitation of children, said such cases totaled 7,000 nationwide in 2013 – up from 5,300 cases just three years earlier.
“Predators used to stalk the playground. This is the new playground,” Brock Nicholson, an HSI special agent based in Atlanta told USA Today this month. “I would argue that this is an epidemic and people have no idea.”
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Information from an affidavit for a search warrant in the Myrtle Beach area case mirrors dozens of sextortion tales on the FBI’s website and in court documents nationwide.
According to the affidavit and related court documents, a Homeland Security Investigations special agent executed a search warrant earlier this month at 4255 Pinto Lane in unincorporated Horry County, where the agent seized a laptop computer, a Nook tablet, a PlayStation Portable and documents believed to be associated with the sextortion of a 14-year-old girl from Michigan.
Investigators believe 22-year-old man who is staying at that address, may have played a role in the sextortion, according to the affidavit. No charges have been filed against the man, who did not respond to a request for comments. The Sun News does not use the names of suspects who have not been charged.
Homeland Security and Michigan officials traced an IP address used to access social networks where photos of the girl had been uploaded to an account registered to the suspect, according to the affidavit. Other IP addresses used to access the social networks were traced to Ripley’s Aquarium and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream shop, both located at Broadway at the Beach.
The suspect, a 2014 Coastal Carolina University graduate, worked at Ben & Jerry’s and the Margaritaville restaurant at Broadway at the Beach, adjacent to the aquarium, during the times photos were posted to the social media sites, the affidavit states.
According to the affidavit, the Tuscola County, Mich., Sheriff’s Office met with the 14-year-old girl’s parents in February after learning of nude images of the girl stored on her iPod. The girl told police that she had been contacted by a stranger via the Instagram picture and message sharing service. While communicating with the stranger through Instagram and Kik Messenger, the girl sent the stranger a picture of herself wearing a bathing suit as well as a picture of herself wearing underwear.
The stranger, who claimed to be an 18-year-old male from Georgia, then requested nude photos of the girl and threatened to post the pictures she had already sent online if she did not comply. The girl eventually sent the nude photos and the stranger continued to pressure her into sending more explicit pictures, again threatening to post those she had already sent if she did not respond.
The girl told police that the photographs the stranger requested “ranged from photographs of the [girl] nude to photographs for which the [stranger] specifically directed the [girl] into sexual poses and activities,” according to the affidavit.
The alleged sextortion continued while the girl was on vacation with her parents, according to the affidavit. The parents recalled their daughter spending hours at a time in the bathroom while on the vacation and the girl later confirmed that she was communicating with the stranger and sending photos during that time.
The girl made numerous attempts to break contact with the stranger, at which point he would threaten to post her photos online. At one point when the girl stopped sending photos, the stranger contacted one of her Instagram friends “demanding the [girl] contact the suspect,” the affidavit states.
It is not clear how long the alleged sextortion took place, but Michigan officials contacted Homeland Security Investigations for assistance within weeks of meeting with the girl’s parents.
The crimes alleged in the affidavit include coercing a minor to engage in sexual activity, which includes a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years, and receiving or distributing child pornography, which carries a prison sentence of at least five years.
Sextortion is a growing crime, in part, because of the boom in social media useage among teenagers and others in recent years.
“We’re talking about kids with a lot of privacy and a lot of technology,” Michelle Collins, vice president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told NBC News last year. “And they’re at a sexually curious age.”
Experts say the best advice for parents is to be aware of who their children are talking to online and through social media sites, teach children to be wary of strangers who contact them and to contact law enforcement if anyone tries to solicit their child.