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Scope of cyber sextortion’s teen victims unknown

Riley K. Brasford, 15, died by suicide on March 30 in Potsdam, after a Facebook user threatened to extort $3,500 from him. (Photo provided)

(Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of self-harm and suicide.)

POTSDAM — Two teen suicides, two families seeking justice and two criminal investigations marked St. Lawrence County in March.

Both Riley Basford and Shylynn Dixon were victims of cyber sextortion — a blackmail extreme and a painful manipulation of kids.

And they’re not the only victims.

A Potsdam Central School sophomore, Riley died March 30, after a brief back-and-forth with a Facebook user threatening to extort $3,500 from him. He was 15.

Shylynn, an 18-year-old junior at Heuvelton Central School, died March 3, after a Facebook user issued similar threats over the last year and a half.

Sextortion, as defined by the Cyberbullying Research Center, is “the threatened dissemination” of sexually natured images without consent. The threat is usually driven by the intent to obtain additional images, sexual acts or money.

Following Riley’s death, state police posted a warning about predatory social media users targeting children and teens, with concern reverberating statewide. As the sextortions are investigated, the agency is urging teens and parents to talk about social media, safe online activity and seeking help.

At the time of this report, state police had not compiled requested data about the reaches of such cyber deception in New York, though Trooper Jennifer Fleishman said “one suicide is too many.”

In a 2016 report to Congress, the Department of Justice noted sextortion cases “tend to have more minor victims per offender than all other child sexual exploitation offenses.”

Sextortion investigations, according to the DOJ, commonly uncover a single offender communicating with hundreds of victims, with forensic examinations of an offender’s digital devices sometimes revealing “thousands of organized folders” documenting contact with minors.

And the impacts are immediate and lasting: “Sextortion victims engage in cutting, have depression, drop out of school or have their grades decline, as well as engage in other forms of self-harm at an alarming rate,” the DOJ reports.

Of 43 child sextortion cases analyzed by the FBI in 2015, two victims died by suicide and 10 attempted suicide.

Public acknowledgement of sextortion among children and teenagers dates back to at least 2012, when 15-year-old Amanda Todd hanged herself after an online stranger stalked and threatened her for more than a year.

The stranger convinced the British Columbia student, a seventh-grader at the time, to display her breasts through a webcam, and an image of her was screen-captured. A year later, Amanda received a Facebook message from the stranger, who demanded she “put on a show” or the image would be sent to her family and friends.

Amanda detailed the experience — the messages, the moves and school transfers, alcohol and drug use — in a Sept. 7, 2012, YouTube video posted a month before her death. The video, in which she speaks only in writing through a series of note cards, has more than 14.3 million views and 99,400 comments.

After greeting viewers with a written “hello,” she flips to the next card: “I’ve decided to tell you my never ending story.”

The blackmailer knew the names of her relatives, friends and classmates. They knew her address.

Anxiety worsening, major depression settling and panic disorder intensifying, Amanda attempted to kill herself with drugs and bleach at least twice before that October.

Almost a decade later, the blackmailer has been extradited from the Netherlands to Canada, where he faces charges of extortion, criminal harassment, child luring and child pornography originally filed in 2014. Aydin Coban, 42, made his first appearance in Canadian court in December as he heads to trial.

Prior to extradition, according to the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Coban was serving a Dutch sentence of more than 10 years from an unrelated 2017 conviction of defrauding, blackmailing and cyberbullying young men and women. Once the trial has concluded, CBC reports, Coban will return to the Netherlands to complete his 2017 sentence and the Canadian sentence, if convicted.

Amanda’s family has since founded a nonprofit, the Amanda Todd Legacy Society, which advocates for internet safety amid widespread cyberbullying and abuse.

“I never thought I would be in this position where eight years later I would be able to have a voice and Amanda would still have a voice,” Amanda’s mother Carol A. Todd told CBC last year. “It keeps me going.”

Sextortion research is limited, with only a handful of studies examining cases in the last five years. Among them, a 2016 Brookings Institution study identified a total of 78 prosecuted criminal cases involving 1,397 known victims, though the Institution qualifies, “calculating the total number of victims in these cases is impossible.”

The defendants in the 78 cases were all men, and the majority of victims were women and girls, according to the study. Hacking was prominent in 9% of cases involving victims who were minors at the time of the sextortion, but “catfishing” was the method targeting 91% of minors. The term originated from the 2011 documentary “Catfish” and is now widely used to describe online deception in which people create fake social media profiles to target people, often for money.

Also in 2016, University of New Hampshire researchers surveyed 1,631 adults, roughly 35% of whom were victimized at 17 or younger.

The Cyberbullying Research Center published its own 2016 survey results in the journal “Sexual Abuse” online in 2018, and in print last year.

The center’s co-directors Justin Patchin, of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Sameer Hinduja, of Florida Atlantic University, surveyed 5,568 U.S. middle and high school students about sextortion and youth perpetration. Roughly 5% of respondents said they had been a victim, and 3% “admitted to threatening others who had shared an image with them in confidence.”

Opening a Facebook account about two months ago to browse snowmobiles for sale, Riley accepted a friend request from a user posing as someone else, his mother Mary Rodee said.

The user, or users, engaged Riley under false pretenses as a teen girl. When Riley eventually shared personal photographs, he was given an ultimatum: pay $3,500 or the photos would be distributed to others.

Three months shy of 16, “he wasn’t prepared for that kind of pressure,” Riley’s father Darren Basford said.

Including two of Riley’s siblings and other area teens, at least 15 young Facebook users received the same friend request, the family recalled.

“I want to figure out how this devil was able to prey on my child in such a short time,” Mrs. Rodee said. “I am sure, and will be until I take my last breath, that he did not know what he was doing. He forgot all the things he knew about social media. He was alone and scared and he made a mistake, and he forgot to ask for what he needed.”

Mrs. Rodee and Mr. Basford are parents to Riley’s siblings Casey and Julia, and nine stepsiblings round out their immediate family. Stepparents Elliott Rodee and Melissa Marion have been in Riley’s life for years.

Shylynn, who made honor roll in criminal justice at BOCES Northwest Technical and Career Center last quarter, celebrated her 18th birthday in December. Her guardian for the last two years, Rosemarie Maneri said Shylynn was like a daughter to her.

“She touched a lot of people’s hearts, and I don’t know if she realized that,” she said.

If you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm or suicide, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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