Online predators Entice & Manipulate Girls

Anthony Borrelli – Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

December 5, 2018 – She was a 14-year-old girl spending time on an online social networking site chatting with four or five teenage boys. The back-and-forth began to fill with sexually-charged language and the girl was encouraged to perform sexual acts in front of her webcam.

But this Michigan teen — who ended up performing on camera — didn’t realize who was on the other end: adult men who were well-practiced in a national conspiracy to entice girls to sexually perform over the internet.
FBI agents spent months investigating and in February indictments were unsealed against nine suspects. Broome County resident Christian Maire, 40, was pegged as the leader of this internet sexual exploitation ring.
On Wednesday, in a Michigan federal court, Maire was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
What’s chilling about what the men got the 14-year-old to do in mid-2015 is that it could happen to just about any vulnerable young person who spends time networking with others online, raising questions about how parents can protect their children from becoming victims of online predators who know how to manipulate young people and exploit those social media connections.
“These men psychologically manipulated their victims to get them to engage in sexual activity on web camera on an unmonitored, chatroom-based website. They hunted girls. They lied to girls. They manipulated girls. They ganged up on girls. They sexually exploited girls,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in sentencing documents filed last week.
Victimization becomes easy online
The internet makes it easier than ever for sexual predators to get access to potential victims, said FBI Special Agent David Fallon, an Albany-based investigator not involved in Maire’s case.
“These guys want to go where the kids are and any one of the popular social media things is perfect them,” Fallon said. “Some are crimes of opportunity and some are crimes of preference, where they have a sexual interest in children and act on that.”
Hunting for ‘bored’ girls
Maire and his accomplices came to be called the “Bored Group” by federal investigators. They spent five years creating dozens of chat-rooms for specific victims, who apparently were viewed as bored teens.
The word “bored” was used in the chat-room names, including “just bored,” “borednstuff,” “f*ing bored,” “boredascanbe” and “soooobored.”
The website and chat rooms were “primarily devoted to the production of child pornography, with multiple groups of adult males using it to target 8-17-year-old children. With the group finally landing in an un-monitored format (a website with no supervision), its members were now free to act on their sexual interest in preteen and teenage girls,” according to the court documents.
Their target group was girls who were between 13 and 17 years old. However, the court documents disclose that a 10-year-old girl was lured also; she performed on camera and was recorded.
Struggling teens, preteens easily duped
Young people, especially those who might be already struggling in their family and personal relationships, can be easily duped.
“The adolescent might realize this isn’t appropriate but at the same time, enjoys the experience and wants it to continue,” said Kevin M. Antshel, an expert in clinical child psychology at Syracuse University. “You never know who you’re talking to on the internet, so don’t make assumptions.”
Out of 5,863 cyber tip-line reports for online child enticement in 2015, a majority of the offenders were strangers to the victims, according to a recent study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
By contrast, law enforcement officials generally contend many perpetrators and victims are known to each other in physical sex abuse cases.
Adolescents of the current generation have grown up as “digital natives,” Antshel said, but the technology has grown faster than our ability to understand it.
‘Bored Group’ goal: gain trust, later manipulate
Many of the underage girls who fell for the “Bored Group” scam were troubled and vulnerable and the men gained their trust to later manipulate them, according to the court papers.
“If a girl was suicidal or revealed that she was cutting herself, the group engaged in what they called a ‘trust building session.’ Trust building sessions involved no discussion of sexual activity, but rather more sensitive chats about life and the child’s worth,” the U.S. Attorney documents stated. “To be sure, there was no benevolence in these sessions. Instead, the group used trust building as an opportunity to further engender loyalty to the group so as to increase the chances that the girl would later engage in sexual activity on web camera.” 
Clearly, the conspirators hunted the most fragile and vulnerable.
One victim was targeted beginning at age 11. She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, struggled with depression and had a service dog to assist her.
Yet not all were so obviously fragile.
One victim, an elite dancer attending a ballet school, was described by her mother in the documents as “a sensitive kid, she was precocious, intelligent and an excellent student.” She suffered from anxiety about dancing well and felt isolated and lonely, according to the documents.
This young teen was exploited by the men for years. Court documents said “they manipulated and enticed her into creating more than 60 videos” of her engaged in sexual activity.
Protecting your child online
Short of pulling the plug on the Wi-Fi, what’s a concerned parent to do?
Here are some safeguards the New York State Attorney General’s Office recommends:
Outline which websites children can browse.
Keep appraised of who they meet or “friend” online.
Set limits on how much time they can spend online playing games or using social networks.
Know where in the house the computers can be used.
Have a written contract between parent and child that sets internet rules and lists consequences of breaking them.
Across the U.S., authorities investigate cases of online predators every year. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 10.2 million reports about suspected child sexual exploitation nationwide in 2017.
Various risk factors for internet victims can include:
Low self-esteem and/or levels of depression.
Social problems including a lack of parental involvement.
Sensation-seeking; interest in the novelty of new experiences.
“The teenager’s decisions tend to be more driven by emotion than logic,” psychologist Antshel said. “Heightened sensitivity to anticipated rewards can motivate adolescents to engage in a risky act, and there’s no brakes on the car.”
If you suspect your teenager or child is involved in something inappropriate, Antshel said getting mad and yanking the phone won’t necessarily fix the problem. Forcing a young person’s online activity into taboo territory could simply drive it underground.
Kids who realize they’ve gotten over their heads might not come forward if they’re to afraid of how mom and dad will react, said Fallon. If that’s the case, he suggests talking to a trusted adult — a teacher or a coach.
Law enforcement can’t catch an internet predator if the crime goes unreported, Fallon said, and letting it slide won’t stop the predator from targeting someone else.
What online platforms to watch
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in a 2017 report, said offenders in these cases prefer to begin on any site that seems easiest to meet potential victims.
Certain social media sites became a “hunting ground” for Maire and his associates, the FBI said in court records.
The group utilized a variety of social media and email accounts: Kik, Discord, MyLOL, Gmail.
Online platforms such as Kik, which is a cross-platform instant messaging app, and Discord, another chat-base program, have been utilized by offenders in other child pornography cases around the Southern Tier.
Among them: Johnson City resident Jared Flanders, 34, used Kik on a dozen occasions to distribute child porn through a chat group to people in other countries, including New Zealand. Flanders is serving an eight-year federal prison sentence.
Federal authorities have not publicly named the site chiefly used by Maire’s group, but the FBI said it’s “primarily used by adult men seeking to sexually exploit teenage and preteen girls.”
Maire and his co-conspirators also divided their roles as “hunters,” “talkers,” or “loopers,” and were prepared in the event of suspicions being aroused.
Assistant U.S. Attorney April Russo, a Michigan-based prosecutor handling the Maire case, detailed it in court filings.
“If a minor became suspicious of the members in a chatroom, or was reluctant to engage in sexual activity, then ‘loopers’ would play a previously recorded video of a minor actively chatting and performing sexually explicit conduct in a chatroom,” Russo said. “The ‘looper’ pretended to be the minor in the video.”
Tracking online predators 
Federal investigators don’t always need to wait for the perpetrator to meet with the underage victim in person to make an arrest.
Depending on the language used, the crime can actually be committed during the sexually explicit conversation that happens over the phone by text or social media.
After the crime has been reported, FBI agents could assume the identity of the minor and maneuver the suspect into a meeting.
Fallon said offenders in these crimes could come from any walk of life. Those arrested by the FBI have ranged from doctors, bankers, lawyers and janitors.
“Some of these guys do it for the fantasy,” Fallon said, “but most of them want to meet (the minor) in person to have sex.”
Building the investigation against Maire and his co-conspirators, FBI agents employed a tactic frequently used in these cases: They followed the digital trail.
A review of logs onto the website used by the conspirators revealed an IP (Internet Protocol) address used from April 24, 2016 to Aug. 23, 2016. It had been used many times to log into a particular social media account.
Next, the FBI subpoenaed Time Warner Cable for more information related to the suspect’s IP address.
Separately, in September 2017, a federal subpoena was issued for Discord about any data for logins by Maire and his co-conspirators. One of the IP addresses they found was Maire’s.
Using the data from IP addresses, investigators tracked down Maire’s home in Broome County. He, along with his wife and children, were at the residence when FBI agents executed their search warrant in late October 2017.