'Sextortion' threatens students, claims lives
On Board Online • June 14, 2021
By Pauline Liu
School districts in St. Lawrence County are reeling from the deaths of two high school students after they were separately tricked into providing embarrassing photos to strangers on the internet and faced threats of blackmail.
Both teens - a boy and a girl who didn't know each other - were targeted via Messenger, a free instant messaging app created by Facebook. It allows Facebook users (who can be as young as 13) to exchange instant messages and share photos. It can also be used to share videos, send money, make voice calls and hold video chats.
The students were threatened in what State Police call "sextortion" schemes. A form of predatory behavior called "online enticement," sextortion involves a person being groomed to engage in online conversations about sexual topics, take sexually explicit images and/or meet face-to-face with the predator for sexual purposes. In some cases, the predator wants to sell or trade the targeted person's sexual images or blackmail the individual for money.
Tactics include pretending to be a young person, claiming to work for a modeling agency, offering to exchange explicit photos, offering something of value for a photo, secretly making recordings during videochats that involve nudity or sexual acts, hacking accounts to steal sexual images and making threats of various kinds if the victim does not continue to send images, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Both of the St. Lawrence County teens who fell victim to online predators took their own lives in March, according to their parents, who spoke with On Board in an effort to prevent any similar tragic outcomes in New York State.
For Potsdam High School sophomore Riley Basford, problems began a few weeks after he joined Facebook. He received a friend request from "Megan," whose profile included photos of a pretty blonde teenager. After Riley accepted the friend request, "Megan" sent him a series of instant messages using a separate app called Messenger, which shares information with Facebook. "Megan" persuaded him to send photos of a personal nature.
The cyber predator posing as Megan promptly blackmailed him for $3,500. He was told that if he didn't pay up, the photos would be made public to everyone he knew on Facebook.
On March 30, just one day after accepting the friend request, Riley took his own life in his room at his father's house. He was 15 - the average age of sextortion victims, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. He loved to fish and had hoped to become an environmental conservation officer.
After his death, State Police examined Riley's phone and showed his parents some of the two hours of correspondence that pushed their son over the brink. They revealed threats that Riley found infuriating.
"Riley tried to put an end to it by writing, 'You're making me mad. Stop it or I'll kill myself,'" said his mother, Mary Rodee.
In an act that Rodee described as an impulsive "split second of rage," Riley followed through on his threat.
Riley had a large family and a wide network of friends in whom he could have confided. His mother believes he was simply too young to "process the finality of the decision that he was making."
A State Police investigation found that Riley wasn't the only one targeted. Fifteen teenage boys who shared the same or similar public friends lists - including Riley's older brother - were contacted by the same stranger through Messenger. Most of the boys didn't respond to the friend request, according to Rodee.
Riley's family members recently were contacted by the parents of 14-year-old Evan McDaniel of Tomball, Texas, who took his own life in January under circumstances they feel were strikingly similar to Riley's.
The FBI has joined the State Police in investigating Riley's death. Meanwhile, Facebook has been dragging its heels, according to Riley's mother, an elementary school teacher in the Canton school district.
"We're still waiting for Facebook to respond to the warrant so police can find out who this person is," she said.
Riley's parents have shared their experience on national TV. They were interviewed on "Inside Edition" and on "Banfield." They've also reached out to Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Watertown), who is working on a bill to raise awareness and provide resources to address the issue.
"I would like to have more education for both kids and their parents of the dangers of social media and the predators that use them," Riley's father, Darren Basford wrote in an email to On Board. "I want the schools to incorporate a lesson in every grade to raise awareness of the dangers."
In the Potsdam school district, Superintendent Joann Chambers applauded Riley's parents for increasing awareness about sextortion and suicide by speaking out about their experiences.
"They've broken open the conversation," Chambers said. "They're so courageous. Even if students wanted to talk about these subjects they couldn't before because there was a shame factor," she added.
Only a few weeks before Riley ended his life, sextortion claimed another victim: Shylynn Dixon, a junior at Heuvelton High School, located just 25 miles from Riley's high school. Shylynn, 18, played varsity basketball for the Lady Bulldogs.
When she took her own life on March 3, she left behind a note. "According to her letter, it was going on for a year, but I didn't have a clue," her mother, Hollie Abar, told On Board.
In the note, she told her family that she loved them, but she "messed up" and "couldn't take it anymore."
Abar recalls that a few weeks before her death, her daughter confided to her that "some photos had been stolen." But then Shylynn abruptly changed the subject.
“I asked her, ‘What kind of photos were stolen?’' Shylynn didn't answer. She told me, 'Never mind. I'll take care of it,'" Abar said. Her daughter never brought the topic up again.
State Police told Abar that Shylynn sent only one photo to a contact via Messenger, but the predator apparently hacked her phone to get more. Then he demanded she meet him in person.
When Shylynn failed to agree to meet, the predator used Messenger to contact two of Shylynn's friends.
"He told them there would be consequences if she didn't meet him," Abar said.
At the time of her death, Shylynn was not living at home. Her mother works as a certified nurse aide, and she was worried she might get COVID-19 and give it to Shylynn. So, she made an arrangement for Shylynn to spend a couple of months living with a family for whom she worked as a babysitter.
"I want people to know that Shylynn was a good girl - a wonderful daughter - and, even though we were living apart, we spoke every other day," Abar said.
Shylynn was an avid reader. She was known for her love of animals. She dreamed of following her older brother into the U.S. Marines with the goal of becoming a military police officer.
To help Heuvelton students cope with grief, counselors and staff from the school district crisis team were on hand. According to Superintendent Jesse Coburn, curricular resources from organizations like Common Sense Education have traditionally been used within the district to teach digital citizenship to students of all ages, but the district is looking to improve and expand these important conversations.
"Schools could say that social media is parental responsibility, but no matter where it's taking place, social media is impacting what's going on in school, and I think we're doing the right thing if we're just trying to help kids," said Coburn.
Using privacy settings recommended
Various apps have privacy controls that can reduce users' exposure to potential predators, but many users don't know how to take advantage of them.
On Facebook, for instance, posted materials and friends lists remain public and can easily be accessed by anyone unless they are set to privacy. There are many online guides such as "How to make Facebook profile private on browser and mobile in 2021" on YouTube at bit.ly/3wvC5Mp and "6 Facebook privacy settings you need to check right now," published on May 13, 2021 at cnet.co/3fN3in4 .
State Police suggest that parents and guardians begin the conversation about cybersafety with their kids while they're still in grade school. They've suggested that adults check their kids' phones and electronic devices and keep track of their children's usernames and passwords for email and social media.
"We know that these apps and platforms change constantly and we just advise parents to consult a couple reputable online sources to stay up to date," said State Trooper Jennifer Fleishman, who gives cybersafety presentations in St. Lawrence County and beyond. The demand for the presentations has soared since the deaths of the two local teens.
During the pandemic, U.S. Justice Department officials warned that children were at increased risk from online predators because they were spending so much time online.
"Parents don't know all the apps or how to use them, but sexual predators do," said Antoinette T. Bacon, Acting United States Attorney for the Northern District of New York.
"Just as parents taught kids to be safe at home by locking the doors at night, parents must learn how to keep kids safe online," Bacon said in an October 2020 news release.
- NetSmartz.org. Videos for young people created by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children under the NetSmartz brand include "Your Photo Fate," in which a girl gets a text reading, "Send me some hot pic pls" and handles it well. "In real-Life Stories - 6 Degrees of Separation", a researcher shows five teenagers how much he was able to find out about them online with a maximum of six clicks. All are on YouTube under the NetSmartz channel, and teacher guides are on NetSmartz.org.
- SOS.FBI.gov . Created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Safe Online Surfing website has trivia-style games for students in grades 3 through 8 and resources for teachers.
- SafetyPledge.org. Sponsored by Homeland Security Investigations (the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this website encourages parents to talk with their children about cybersafety.
State Trooper Jennifer Fleishman recommends these resources for parents: besociallysmart.com (also a podcast) and the social media advice on commonsensemedia.org.
Rodee, Riley's mother, said she wants to alert parents and their children about suicide prevention and the importance of cybersafety.
"I just want to spare another mother from going through the same experience," she said.
Sextortion can be reported to the FBI at (800) CALL FBI or the website tips.fbi.gov and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at (800) THE LOST or at www.missingkids.org . Counselors are available 24/7 by texting "Got5" to 741741 (the New York State Crisis Text Line) or calling (844) 863-9314 (Project Hope Emotional Support Helpline). Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
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