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Sextortion incidents prompt police warnings

'The last thing you want to do is expose yourself,' investigator says

Police issue another warning about sexual behavior and extortion on social media following a recent incident in West Valley City.
Police issue another warning about sexual behavior and extortion on social media following a recent incident in West Valley City.
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WEST VALLEY CITY — When the officer pulled the 22-year-old man over for running a red light, he noticed there was a large amount of cash in the car with him.

"Believing the money was possibly intended for illegal items, (the officer) questioned (the man) about why he had such a large amount of money in his possession," according to a search warrant affidavit filed in 3rd District Court in May.

What the officer discovered was that the money was not connected to drugs. Rather, the driver had accepted a Facebook friend request from a woman just two hours earlier, and then engaged in sexual acts through video chat, the warrant states.

The man had never met the woman.

Shortly after the sexual acts were completed, the "woman" sent the man a video recording of what he had just done and "demanded $3,500 or she would post the videos to several social media sites."

The man said "he was ashamed and embarrassed" and told the woman that he could pay $1,000 and she agreed that would be enough for her to delete the video, according to the affidavit.

When the man was stopped by police, he was on his way to wire the money to the unknown woman.

"I think in this incident, she actually started to (send the video to friends). And he wanted to stop it, so he went and got some money and was going to send it to her," said West Valley Police Sgt. Brandon Christiansen.

High school and college-age men and women engaging in sexual behavior through social media or other apps is not uncommon, he said.

But police may not have an accurate count of how often such extortion attempts are made, because those incidents don't always get reported, as was the case in West Valley City.

"I don't think he would have reported it if we didn't pull him over because he's embarrassed. He'd rather pay the money than let his parents or friends know what he did," Christiansen said.

In that case, investigators convinced the man not to send the money.

Over the past several months, the Deseret News has found similar police investigations regarding men accepting Facebook friend requests from a person they've never met. The pattern is the same: They engage in sexual conduct, then someone tries to blackmail them.

In January, a 25-year-old Duchesne County man accepted a friend request from someone claiming to be a 22-year-old woman.

"This individual convinced him to video chat with them, where they both engaged in explicit behavior and nudity," a search warrant states. Afterward, he received a message from the woman "threatening to blackmail him, claiming they had recorded the video and intended to publicly display it on YouTube and send it directly to his friends and family if he did not send her $7,500."

Police noted the man later raised questions. "Thinking back (on) it … he believed the video may have been a fake or prerecorded video, as it appeared to him they were not interacting with him normally," the report states.

As in the West Valley case, the person sending the threatening messages claimed to be a minor and threatened to contact officers themselves if the victim decided to go to police instead.

In July of 2017, Mt. Pleasant police investigated a similar case in Sanpete County. A 17-year-old boy said he received a friend request from a woman and soon engaged in a video chat conversation. The woman convinced the teen to disrobe, a search warrant states.

When the chat was over, "The woman told him she recorded the video and that he needed to pay her $3,000 or she was going to send the video to YouTube and all his friends on his Facebook list."

Catching the person responsible for such extortion attempts is not always easy. In the West Valley case, Christiansen said detectives served several subpoenas and search warrants and traced the origin of the extortion attempt to a person overseas. Investigators say that person also tried to do the same thing to other men.

But because of where the person is located, Christiansen said an arrest is unlikely.

He suggests avoiding situations like this in the first place, saying people shouldn't "friend" people on Facebook whom they've never met, and shouldn't engage in sexual behavior online. Yet, he said in today's world of social media and dating apps, some men either don't think it's unusual or are too enticed when they receive a friend request from a person claiming to be a woman who has a pretty profile picture whom they've never met.

"If you're meeting people on Facebook you don't know, the last thing you want to do is expose yourself," he cautioned. "The bottom line is, if you don't know the people, don't friend the people or give them access to what's on your social media account."