Digital kidnapping is a dark, disturbing trend that’s coming to light

Posting photos, personal info online gives exploiters rich source to create fake profiles, worse

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No mat­ter how many crim­i­nal com­plaints you read, the expres­sion “JV” always sends chills down your spine. But this line, from a com­plaint filed April 27 in a Cal­i­for­nia fed­er­al court, stands out.

Bob Sul­li­van, jour­nal­ist and one of the found­ing mem­bers of msnbc.com

Petersen stat­ed that he recent­ly received via email from JV#1 a video of JV#1’s younger brother…masturbating in a bath­room. Petersen stat­ed that JV#1 told Petersen he had record­ed JV#2 with­out (his) knowl­edge. Petersen believes JV#2 is approx­i­mate­ly ten years old.”

JV stands for juve­nile vic­tim, an expres­sion often used in pub­lic court doc­u­ments to pro­tect the iden­ti­ty of a child. Behind it is a life, prob­a­bly a whole fam­i­ly, in tat­ters. Rarely do you get a true pic­ture of how deep the dam­age can be; the anonymi­ty usu­al­ly pre­vents a full account­ing of evil’s rip­ple effects. But not this time.

JV#1 and JV#2 are the sons of Jere­my and Sara Thomp­son. The swirl of sick­ness that con­sumed the fam­i­ly in the past sev­er­al weeks is cru­el. They have tak­en the brave, unusu­al step of com­ing for­ward to help oth­ers avoid the crazy night­mare they have lived—and are still liv­ing.

Night­mare begins

Life changed for­ev­er for the Thomp­son fam­i­ly on May 4. It was a nor­mal after­noon, the Thomp­sons hang­ing out in their sub­ur­ban Seat­tle home, enjoy­ing time with their two seem­ing­ly well-adjust­ed kids, 17 and 11 (I won’t be nam­ing them). A ring at the door­bell roused the cou­ple, who soon found them­selves talk­ing to a Sno­homish Coun­ty sheriff’s offi­cer and a social ser­vices expert on the front porch.

Their 17-year-old son has been sex­u­al­ly abus­ing his 11-year-old broth­er, the offi­cers said. The FBI has porno­graph­ic videos, images and chat logs. There is strong evi­dence, though the par­ents can’t see it—yet. The offi­cers demand to speak to the old­er son. He denies every­thing, insists it must all be a crazy mis­take.

Relat­ed sto­ry: Par­ents may put kids at risk by over­shar­ing pho­tos online

The Thomp­son boys caught the FBI’s atten­tion on April 26, when fed­er­al agents arrest­ed an alleged pedophile in Cal­i­for­nia, near San Fran­cis­co, named Bryan Petersen. He was arrest­ed along with anoth­er man in late April, accord­ing to local media reports.

The Petersen com­plaint chill­ing­ly cites JV#1 and JV#2. Sep­a­rate­ly, the Thomp­sons were told JV#1 and JV#2 are their kids. About a week lat­er, offi­cers were dis­patched to the Thompson’s home. That week­end, Jeremy—who works in IT—skipped sleep and spent hours con­duct­ing foren­sics on his kids’ com­put­ers and oth­er gad­gets, look­ing for any kind of evi­dence.

Saved by sleuthing

Lap­tops, desk­tops, phones, email accounts, Face­book, text mes­sages, Snapchat, Insta­gram, fol­low­ers, con­tacts. Years and years of con­tent,” he says. “Noth­ing was found.”

Five days after the ini­tial con­tact, the Thomp­sons get to speak with a detec­tive assigned to the case. They are told about some of the evi­dence against their old­er son. They still can’t see the porno­graph­ic video, but they are told about years’ worth of fam­i­ly pho­tos. But things aren’t adding up. All the pho­tos described by the detec­tive are harm­less; they all match pho­tos that have been post­ed by the fam­i­ly on their own social media pages. The kids on the beach, at Legoland, pos­ing in the cock­pit of an air­plane.

The detec­tive also men­tions a Face­book page made by the old­er son that includes “gay” in the title, appar­ent­ly in an effort by the boy to explore his sex­u­al­i­ty online. That night, Thomp­son redou­bled his dig­i­tal sleuthing effort. He dis­cov­ered a dig­i­tal creep had been using his elder boy’s pho­tos to cre­ate a “fan” club for him. The cre­ator added tit­il­la­tion by say­ing the boy was pos­si­bly gay, invit­ing com­men­tary on that.

End game becomes appar­ent

Three years ago, “dig­i­tal kid­nap­ping” became the new creepy thing for par­ents to wor­ry about online. I appeared on the “Today” show warn­ing par­ents about this weird, but per­haps not ille­gal, pas­time. “Kid­nap­pers” would pil­fer pho­tos of babies, then post them on their own social media pages and pre­tend they were the kids’ moms and dads. They would rev­el in the cute com­pli­ments, cre­ate entire nar­ra­tives around these faux fam­i­lies, and so on. At the time, folks couldn’t quite fig­ure out what the harm was in this game. Now we know.

The man who reg­is­tered the web­site had noticed the Thomp­son child when he was a final­ist in a mod­el­ing con­test for a nation­al brand cloth­ing com­pa­ny. Sev­er­al years ago, the man had mes­saged the fam­i­ly, say­ing he hoped the boy would win. The Thomp­sons thought it was creepy at the time, but noth­ing more, and blocked him.

They for­got about it until the sheriff’s offi­cer showed up at the door accus­ing one of their chil­dren of rap­ing the oth­er.

At this moment we knew 100 per­cent that our son was not involved,” Thomp­son said.

Elab­o­rate faux pro­files

The per­pe­tra­tor had cre­at­ed an alter­nate uni­verse with their son at the cen­ter. The efforts were elab­o­rate. There was a fake Face­book pro­file claim­ing to be a class­mate of their child, and which got 28 oth­er class­mates to accept friend requests. That gave him access to even more pho­tos. There were oth­er pro­file pages, a net­work of online com­ments and reviews, pos­si­bly even oth­er fake child iden­ti­ties.

Their son had an impos­tor. The impos­tor had sent the emails and video to Petersen. The chats about abuse weren’t real. The next morn­ing, the Thomp­sons vis­it­ed the detec­tive and unveiled the evi­dence. The case would be dropped, the inves­ti­ga­tor said, once she could ver­i­fy the research. Only then did they get to see still images from the harm­ful video. There was a rea­son police couldn’t find a green show­er cur­tain in any bathroom—the Thomp­son fam­i­ly nev­er had one.

The boy looked sim­i­lar to a younger (ver­sion of the younger son), but it was absolute­ly not him. This was a mas­sive relief. Our kids were safe. Our kids were vic­tims,” Thomp­son said. “Our fam­i­ly mem­bers were vic­tims. This poor boy in the video was a vic­tim. His face con­tin­ues to haunt me.”

Case closed but dam­age done

After child pro­tec­tive ser­vices con­duct­ed more inter­views with the younger son, and with the par­ents, the sheriff’s depart­ment did indeed drop the case. Shari Ire­ton, pub­lic infor­ma­tion offi­cer for the depart­ment, con­firmed to me that the agency was asked to inves­ti­gate poten­tial abuse, found none, and closed the case. The FBI said it could not com­ment on any ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion.

(At the family’s request, I am not nam­ing the impos­tor so this sto­ry does not inter­fere with the ongo­ing inves­ti­ga­tion.)

Mean­while, what now? The kids are get­ting coun­sel­ing to work through the trau­ma. The par­ents are left won­der­ing what they could have done dif­fer­ent­ly. And that’s the rea­son they’ve decid­ed to come for­ward with this sto­ry.

This is the kind of crime that could only hap­pen online. The tox­ic mix of twist­ed minds, anonymi­ty, and social media can turn the inno­cent act of shar­ing a hap­py fam­i­ly moment into a knock on the door from the sheriff’s depart­ment.  The Thomp­sons want you to know this can hap­pen. They have locked down every piece of their dig­i­tal lives, and they’d like you to con­sid­er doing that, too.

More sto­ries about online vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty:
Ash­ley Madi­son, ‘data kid­nap­ping,’ and a new era of hack­ing
How to talk to your kids about mal­ware
Before sum­mer begins, talk about online secu­ri­ty with your kids

 

 


Posted in Data Privacy, Fresh vulnerabilities, Guest Essays