Luzerne County detective Charles Balogh’s mind raced when he received a tip earlier this year that a nude video of an area 6-year-old had been posted on the YouTube video sharing website.
“I was convinced someone in that house was doing bad things to this kid and that they were the ones who were involved in this,” said Balogh, who specializes in computer crimes.
But as his investigation unfolded, he was dumbfounded to learn this 6-year-old had single-handedly recorded and uploaded the video without the knowledge of family members.
A stranger was able to communicate with the child through YouTube messaging because the child was viewing the site alone on an account that had been set up, known as a “channel,” the detective said. The “naive and impressionable” youngster simply followed instructions, oblivious to the danger.
“Someone showed this child exactly what to do and how to do it,” Balogh said. “I never would have in a million years believed this would happen had I not sat down and interviewed the child and had the child walk me through exactly what happened.”
It got worse.
Within that one-month period, he received two more tips of nude YouTube videos uploaded by two more area children under age 9. His investigation revealed similar circumstances. In one of these videos, the child was captured looking around, as instructed, to make sure nobody at home was watching before lifting up an article of clothing.
The message Balogh is trying to convey: There are lots of increasingly devious scammers, hackers and perverts attempting to reach and hurt people of all ages through a window that can open each time a computer, tablet, cell phone or even smart television or gaming system is turned on.
In one case involving the three children, the predator was wearing a child-friendly disguise designed to entice youngsters, Balogh said.
The reports came to Balogh from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. YouTube and other electronic service providers are required by federal law to notify the center if they detect child pornography on their servers, Balogh said.
The parents had no idea the videos existed until they were informed by his team, Balogh said, noting the videos were available for public viewing a short time before YouTube detected and took them down.
While the parents of the three impacted children are now more vigilant, there was no way to track the parties that solicited the videos because they covered their tracks and the children did not know them, Balogh said.
“Think about this. Three kids in less than a month under nine uploading inappropriate videos of themselves on YouTube. Are you kidding me? How is this possible?” the detective said.
He said he has since received additional reports of area children uploading inappropriate videos.
In an email response, a YouTube spokesperson said the company has clear, aggressively enforced policies against videos, comments and other activity that exploit minors.
“Content that sexualizes minors is unacceptable to us,” the email said.
When YouTube is made aware of any such behavior, including suspect uploading or commenting, it immediately takes action and terminates the accounts of offenders, it said. All videos containing child sexual abuse imagery are reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, it said.
The company also works with authorities and experts to detect, report and share “digital fingerprints” from illegal material, the email said.
“Users and law enforcement can report content to us at any time, and our teams work around the clock 24/7 to review and remove content,” it said.
Adults at risk
It’s not just children who are at risk.
Wilkes-Barre Crime Watch Coalition President Charlotte Raup said she was horrified to receive a message in her email in-box in recent days with an attention-grabbing subject line containing a real password she had used online in the past.
The sender claimed to have hacked into her computer and used the webcam to film her watching an online porn video, threatening to share the video with all her email and social media contacts if she did not send a bitcoin payment within one day. To up the urgency, the scammer said the clock was ticking because a “special pixel” in the email provided evidence the email had been read.
Raup said she knew it was a scam because she never viewed porn sites. But the inclusion of her password put this communication in a whole new league that forced her to take notice and do some research instead of simply deleting it like the sea of others she has received in the past.
She copied some of the email wording into an online search and saw reports of many receiving similar emails containing their passwords. Some recipients traced these passwords to older accounts, including an online business network, that had been hacked in the past.
Her greatest fear: the disclosure of a private password will scare others into giving money, fearing they will somehow be embarrassed by a video release — whether they do or don’t watch online porn.
In her case, she no longer uses that password. If she did, she would immediately changed it.
“I don’t want anyone scammed. I’ve seen so many people scammed over the years,” Raup said. “The tone of this email was very threatening.”
These examples show prowlers and peepers are refining their techniques to try to climb through that virtual window, Balogh said.
Last week, a distraught mother called a local police department about something that happened when her 12-year-old was playing a computerized game on a system that allows communication with other players at different physical locations, Balogh said. An unsolicited stranger interrupted the game to share nude photos intended to entice, he said.
“A lot of parents may not even think of that possibility,” Balogh said.
The detective also has received reports of YouTube videos featuring cartoon or costumed characters that appear to be for children, but they discuss and encourage inappropriate behavior, he said. If children watch these with headphones, parents may be unaware of the danger.
His office is working with one local police department to recover funds for an elderly man who was conned by slick scammers promising prizes.
Sweet when the man was providing personal information and sending checks, the criminals turned vicious when the man figured out what was happening and stopped payment on the last check he had mailed, Balogh said. They sent the man a letter citing actual state laws and asserted he would get in trouble for writing a “bad check.”
“The guy thought he was going to get arrested,” Balogh said. “They’re trying to put the fear of God in people.”
Balogh said there are countless ways to deflect the bad stuff, including many posted at www.fbi.gov.
He puts black tape over his computer webcams and adds passcodes on all of his computer devices, including cell phones.
Victims should file police reports.
Don’t give money or personal information or click on unknown links, no matter how tempting or alarming.
Parents should demand to know their children’s passcodes and periodically check to make sure they were not changed, he said. When his daughter was underage, he installed parental tracking software on her cell phone, with her knowledge, so he could monitor everything she was doing.
“Many parents don’t even know what applications kids have on their phones,” Balogh said. “I tell every parent, if you are not an overprotective parent in today’s world, your kids are in danger — 1,000 percent. It’s scary.”
He said one popular photo-sharing site, Snapchat, allows users to hide photos and videos in a password-protected folder, which means parents monitoring may not see those images.
While the dangers of technology are daunting, Balogh said it’s an ingrained part of today’s society with many positives. Senior citizens, for example, are increasingly using tablets and phones to stay connected to peers and their children and grandchildren, he said.
“I love to hear when an elderly person is on Facebook,” he said, noting he will continue his public education campaigns for all ages.
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Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.