Three federal cyberstalking cases that surfaced within a few days of each other in the Cincinnati area have underscored widening challenges in protecting susceptible youths from wily predators.
The three men are all charged with pressuring multiple girls or young women into providing sexually explicit images and threatening them with vengeful acts if they didn’t comply.
FBI Director James Comey, in a visit this month to the bureau’s southern Ohio field office, said parents who wouldn’t allow their children to wander a mall or city at night without knowing who they were with should realize the online threats they face.
“You let them on the Internet, and they’re wandering the world,” he said. “There are a lot of bad, sick people out there.”
FBI spokesman Todd Lindgren in Cincinnati said the three cases this month came to light at around the same time because of unrelated reasons, and weren’t part of a short-term targeted effort. The FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force works on similar cases involving children every day, and the number of such cases appears to be growing nationally, he said.
A 2014 survey Pew Research Center study found that more than half of women ages 18-24 said they suffered some kind of online harassment, like being called offensive names, while a quarter reported they had been stalked online.
“Sextortion” cases like the ones that resulted in charges this month are facilitated by the spread of smartphones and social media, said an educational outreach expert for Cincinnati Bell. Stephen Smith said younger girls can be particularly vulnerable to older online predators.
“They have an unfair advantage; they’re adults, they can be patient,” said Smith, who speaks at schools and other interested groups around Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. “If you have someone who has a strategy, they can troll through the Web.”
Smith said predators can watch social media posts to gauge a youth’s state of mind, self-esteem issues, and longing for a friend or a relationship. He said predators even share tips and methods with each other online.
Smith said parents are often naive about the threats and face a daunting task because of the constant emergence of newer digital communication methods, such as Snapchat, Kik and online dating applications — there are even apps to hide apps, he said. He urges parents to know their children’s digital passwords and to keep up on digital technology.
Summaries of the three cases that resulted in federal charges this month:
—The FBI said Nicholas Kurtz, 21, of suburban Clearcreek Township, used Skype, Instagram and other means to coerce teen girls in five states into exposing themselves to him online, including one whom he persuaded to mutilate herself and act as his “slave.” The FBI said it began investigating Kurtz after a 14-year-old girl in Wisconsin told police he was threatening to rape and kill her if she didn’t keep doing as he wanted. The FBI said he also threatened her and other girls with sharing their nude photos online, and made such claims for sympathy such as saying he had cancer or lived in foster care.
Kurtz pleaded not guilty to charges of coercion and enticement.
—Authorities said Cody Lee Jackson, 20, contacted a 14-year-old girl on Facebook in February and arranged to have her brought to his Norwood apartment by taxi several times for sex — while he was on electronic monitoring because of an abduction case. The FBI said by March, he was keeping her in his apartment, restricting her movements, and eventually impregnated her.
The FBI said Jackson fled before his scheduled August sentencing for interference with custody in the earlier case, but allegedly reached out to the girl by cellphone after he left Ohio and threatened to kill her and her family if she didn’t take sexually explicit photos of herself and send them to him on Facebook, where he allegedly used his Facebook accounts to transfer the pornographic images.
Jackson was arrested this month in Salt Lake City, Utah, and faces multiple federal and state charges. No attorney was listed for him in federal court records.
—The FBI said Bryan Harris, 27, of suburban Blue Ash used Facebook and other social media to communicate with more than a dozen young women and underage girls seeking nude photos or meeting to have sex. The FBI said Harris would sometimes use insults to pressure females to send him nude photos, and later would threaten to post them online or tell their parents or police.
He pleaded not guilty to two counts of coercion and enticement.
After his case became public, the FBI set up a telephone hotline for tips about other possible alleged victims.
Within about a week, Lindgren said, the tip line had received more than 100 calls.