How to Catch a Cyber Sextortionist

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While a student at Belmont High in Belmont, New Hampshire, Ryan Vallee — under the name of Seth Williamson — would initially befriend teen girls by texting them about their favorite ice cream or the name of their pets. They thought he was being sweet. He was after clues to their social network passwords. His aim? To hack their accounts in a bid to extort them for nude selfies. If he didn’t get what he wanted, his demands escalated.

The problem was that a lot of students were not reporting the behavior. They were trying to get through, heads down, not wanting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Seth’s victims seemed to share that trait. A girl named Mackenzie, who was harassed by Seth, told me that when she learned who a few of his other victims were, she realized that none were in the popular crowd. They were consigned to the insecure middle, where every misstep was perilous. Staying quiet seemed a reasonable choice.

As Stephanie Clifford reports at Wired, one by one, exasperated and terrified, the girls reported Seth Williamson to the police. When Raechel Moulton, Belmont’s only detective, realized she had a serial cyberstalker on her hands, she called in the Feds — who have far greater power to investigate cyberbullying than state officials. It was just a matter of sorting through his IP address trail before the sting took place.

RYAN VALLEE WASN’T one of the popular kids at Belmont High. But he had two advantages his victims did not. He was a boy, and therefore not as vulnerable to slut-shaming. And he understood how to harness technology to seem powerful, controlling and terrifying victims for years with only a smartphone and a computer.

This information was critical: It meant Vallee was back online, breaking the terms of his bail. Moreover, if agents could catch him with whatever device he was using, they would also have his browsing and messaging history. With evidence that strong, they could circumvent Vallee’s “some other dude” defense. The government got an order that required Facebook to deliver daily reports of IP addresses and login times for the M.M. Facebook page. Meanwhile, O’Neill took over Mackenzie’s Facebook. Copying the instant-messaging patois he learned from his teenage daughters, O’Neill posed as Mackenzie, alternately flirting, challenging, and being mad at him. “The more he talks, the more he logs in,” O’Neill said. “The more he logs in, we can identify where he is.”

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