Seven men were slammed with lengthy prison sentences on Aug. 29 and Aug. 30 for operating a scheme to trick over 90 underage girls into performing sexually explicit activities on camera.
Six of the men, aged 24-45, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce child pornography and conspiracy to receive and distribute child pornography, and are facing 18-30 years behind bars. The seventh, Brandon Gressette, 33, of Summerville, South Carolina, was sentenced to 40 years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to produce child pornography and two counts of production of child pornography.
“Today’s sentencings involve another example of a disturbing and reprehensible new trend: the ‘crowdsourcing’ of child exploitation,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in an Aug. 30 release.
The seven Americans, as well as others abroad, operated a password-protected website where they organized to target the social media accounts of girls as young as 10, according to court documents (pdf). The perpetrators contacted the girls and, posing as underage boys and girls, tried to convince them to engage in sexually explicit activities in front of a web camera. Sometimes, they streamed pre-recorded videos of other underage girls doing the same, tricking their targets into believing they were seeing a peer engaging in such activities. When the target followed suit, the men would record the video and share it among themselves through their website. They seemed especially focused on the YouNow live streaming site.
Investigators identified 91 victims from 28 states and Canada.
The defendants hailed from South Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia, Colorado, Utah, and Missouri. Another man connected to the conspiracy was sentenced to 18 years in March 2017. The defendants were also ordered to pay a fine and restitution to victims to the tune of more than $200,000.
“This case illustrates that even sophisticated technological means will not protect predators online from being brought to justice,” said U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon of the District of South Carolina.
The case was investigated by the FBI field offices in Newark, New Jersey; Columbia, South Carolina; and the FBI Major Case Coordination Unit.
“These crimes are especially disturbing and it is very satisfying to see the results of the hard work of our special agents,” said Alphonso “Jody” Norris, FBI Special Agent in Charge of the Columbia field office. “The FBI in South Carolina will remain vigilant and continue our active role in the national strategy to ensure children are protected.”
The method used by the perpetrators in this case represents a new trend in how online predators operate, a senior Justice Department official told The Epoch Times. Sometimes they also force their victims into producing more explicit content by threatening to release the already obtained pictures and videos to the victims’ families or online.
The case was a part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the Justice Department to reduce sexual exploitation of children. Prosecutors have been charging over 3,000 people a year under the project.
While the prosecutions have remained steady, the crime has skyrocketed as the social media provides predators easy access to potential victims.
Analysis of the explicit images online revealed a five-fold increase from 3,000 identified victims in 2010 to 15,000 in 2017, the official said.
Reports of suspected child sexual exploitation jumped from one million in 2013 to 10 million in 2017, the official said based on tips received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.