From friend request to money request: Cyber sextortion targeting young people in Michigan

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LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – Cyber sextortion is a situation where sexual images of someone are used against them as a threat for money or for something else.

Karen Holt is a Criminal Justice Professor at Michigan State University.

“This is happening to so many young people and they don’t know what to do with it,” Holt said.

She did research with MSU Criminal Justice Doctoral Student, Birdy Liggett, on this type of online harassment.

They said there are different types of cyber sextortion; one could involve an intimate partner.

“Pictures are shared initially in a consensual way. However, once the relationship breaks down, those images might be used to continually coerce someone in a relationship,” Liggett said.

The other could be through an online relationship with a person someone’s never met.

“Be Facebook or any kind of social media creates a fake account and then will pretend to be someone else,” holt said.

Cyber security experts call someone with a fake online account a catfish.

Jamie Izen is a Detective with the Michigan State University Police Department.

“The subject will typically encourage the other person to remove their clothing and the person who’s on the other end of the phone typically obliges,” Izen said.

Izen said the catfish will request money in order to not send intimate videos to someone’s friends and family.

This type of crime can impact a wide range of age groups.

Aaron Schroeder is also a Detective with the MSU Police Department. He said students are specifically targeted for this type of crime.

“Using social media to make some friends or to see who’s in their buildings,” Schroeder said.

Victims can feel isolated like they have nowhere to turn for help.

“There’s a lot of depression, a lot of anxiety,” Holt said.

But there are options. One place is at the Michigan State University Police Department.
There is a digital forensics and cybercrime unit there.

“We are focused on making sure that persons okay that they feel safe… We also work with them on the criminal investigation,” Schroeder said.

Across Michigan, there’s another option to report a cyber sextortion crime. It’s called OK2SAY and Michigan State Detective, Carlos Fossati, helps lead the program.

“OK2SAY is a school safety tip line but it gives a person a chance to report something confidentially,” Sgt. Fossati said.

Students can reach out via email, phone call, text, or the app to speak with someone about their situation.

“Listen to them, collect information and then really see if they want help from us or are you just wanting to vent,” Sgt. Fossati said.

Detectives say there’s no guarantee the catfish will be found during an investigation.

“It’s really difficult to try to figure out the actual origin of that account. A lot of times we’re finding it originates outside of the country,” Schroeder said.

Legally many states don’t have a direct way to address cyber sextortion

“Our way of charging this kind of behavior has to be creative where people might be charged under extortion laws or cyber intrusion laws or harassment laws,” Holt said.

But still, people are encouraged to report what’s happened to them.

“This is a serious crime that there are negative consequences,” Holt said.

Because the more cases are reported, the more attention cyber sextortion crimes will get.

Liggett said that’s how change is made.

“You are not alone. This is happening to lots of people out there. It’s not your fault,” Liggett said.

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