Luke Moretti, News 4 Reporter - BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - The Internet can be a great place to explore, learn and connect. But increasingly, there are certain danger zones that have law enforcement agencies wondering what's next.
FBI supervisory special agent Peter Orchard, who's spent 22 years with the bureau, thought he had seen it all during his career.
"About every two weeks my guys will bring me something new that I just shake my head," said Orchard, who oversees the child exploitation task force out of the Buffalo FBI office. "I just can't believe that would even happen, but it does."
Orchard is talking about the growing problem of sextortion; when someone demands sexual images or favors -- even money from a person.
They threaten to release or distribute the material if those demands are not met.
"We're getting at least one of these a week," he said.
An analysis of tip line sextortion reports done by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children between October 2013 and April 2016 found that 78 percent of the reports involved female children and 15 percent involved male children.
The report found that male and female children each ranged in age from 8-17 years old. The average age was fifteen, according to the analysis.
Joelle Huber, 18, knows firsthand about what it's like to be victimized.
The Lancaster resident found herself trapped by compromising photos that she sent to someone when she was around 12 or 13 years old.
"I liked the attention," she told News 4. "He was nice about it at first and I didn't think anything about it."
"He was nice. He was giving me attention," she added.
Joelle, who was contacted via a popular online messaging app, says initially she did it to "have fun."
But she says the demands and threats for more sexually explicit images kept coming.
"He kept going. And that's when I knew this wasn't just for fun," Joelle explained.
"I just kept sending him more."
"I didn't want it to go public and I didn't want my parents to see it, and my friends to see it. I didn't want anybody to see it," she said.
Peter Orchard says this kind of scenario is typical with sextortion cases.
"These guys are master manipulators," he explained.
"They may try ten different girls and only get lucky once. But they only have to get lucky once."
He says online predators will use fake pictures and names and lie about their age in an attempt to gain the confidence of their target.
"She may think it's a 17 year old or 18 year old guy or occasionally they know they're talking to an older man. But they thought it's not going to go any farther than this," Orchard explained. "It's just kind of a tease type thing, and then the next thing you know he pulls some other trick on her and he's got her."
In a 2016 report to Congress, the U.S. Justice Department called sextortion an "evolving threat" that continues to emerge in the online context.
"Mobile devices have fundamentally changed the way offenders can abuse children. Apps on these devices can be used to target, recruit or groom, and coerce children to engage in sexual activity," according to the report.
"Offenders are adept at tricking and/or coercing children who are online and typically do so in large numbers."
Sextortion has become such a huge problem, law enforcement agencies like the FBI are doing more community outreach.
Recently, 8th grade students at Veronica E. Connor Middle School on Grand Island were given a candid talk about the dangers and consequences of sextortion.
Michael Hockwater, a Cheektowaga Police detective who works on the FBI's Child Exploitation Task Force, told students that "kids in your age category tend to sometimes get a little bit too involved in one of these conversations using your cellphone or using one of your apps."
He was joined by FBI special agent Randall Garver who explained that sexual predators cast a wide net on the Internet.
"More than likely that individual that harassed you or did whatever he did to you all, he probably wasn't doing this to just one kid, alright. He's doing this to a number of kids," Garver told the students.
Joelle Huber says she never thought her situation would get any better because it had been going on for so long.
It's something that she kept to herself.
"You feel very alone like you don't want to tell people about it. You don't want to tell people what you're feeling," she said. "So you just kind of bottle everything in. That's not the best. It's not what you should do."
Fortunately, Joelle's cyber nightmare faded after she told a friend and alerted police.
Authorities eventually tracked down the perpetrator in Joelle's case. He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 15 year in prison on child pornography charges.
"You feel better after. It's not easy telling them. It's not easy at all," she said. "But knowing that it does get better, that's the best part."
Joelle decided to come forward and share her experience. She hopes to reach other victims who are trapped in the same cyber nightmare and are afraid to seek help.
"You need to tell somebody about it. It only hurts you more if you keep it in," she explained.
"I thought that I was alone, but now realizing and seeing and finally noticing that this happens to a lot of people," she added. "I would want them to know that they're not alone. There are other people out there that can help."
For anyone who thinks that sextortion can't happen to them, the FBI offers some simple tips to keep it that way.
- Don't send pictures to strangers
- Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone
- Limit where you take pictures of yourself
- Never take pictures in the bedroom or bathroom
- Remember that people online are not always who they say they are
Peter Orchard says smartphones are computers and require some level of oversight by parents of underage children.
"My biggest advice is parents got to be looking at what their kids are doing on the phone. They are no longer telephones. They are mobile computers that can make phone calls," Orchard said.
"The minute you hit send you've lost all control of that data, period. It's out there, and it's out in the World Wide Web somewhere," he added.