On one level the Penn State sexual extortion case is closed, for reasons including preventing further embarrassment for at least two athletes.
But there’s also this: More than 30 videos and images, many involving group sex or Penn State athletes in various states of undress in the football locker room, remain out there in the digital world, in the possession of an obviously malicious person or persons, according to authorities.
It’s because, after nearly a year, university police were unable to find a person called “Li” who they were told baited multiple athletes into exchanging sexually explicit videos. Li extorted at least one athlete into repeatedly providing additional images by threatening to post them online, according to police documents.
It’s why Scott Foulkrod of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology offers this advice to anyone considering sharing sensitive images: “Think worst possible scenario.”
He warns against providing such images to anyone, including people you trust. In fact, he advises against even creating such images.
“Once an image is out there it may be nearly impossible to prohibit further dissemination once it moves on to subsequent people,” says Foulkrod, a lawyer and associate professor of philosophy and legal studies.
Penn State athletes have provided a case study.
It began early last September after a Penn State athlete met “Li” on a dating app. He then accepted a request to shift the interaction to Snapchat. They exchanged sexually explicit photos. Li, ostensibly a woman but who could be multiple people, authorities said, then demanded more photos from the athlete, called “Victim 2″ in police documents, and threatened to share his images online if he didn’t comply.
“If you don’t do what I tell you to do, I’m going to expose you. I’ll post your pictures under Coach Franklin’s page,” Li said, according to the documents. Li was referring to the Twitter account of head football coach James Franklin, which had 257,000 followers, according to the documents.
Li also added Victim 2 to group chats involving other victims “to give him advice,” according to the documents. “They were telling me to do what she said. That it would be bad. I didn’t feel like I had another choice,” he told investigators.
Victim 2 told investigators he believed Li had similar interactions with five other athletes at Penn State, according to documents. That includes one referred to as Victim 1, but whose situation wasn’t detailed in documents reviewed by PennLive.
Victim 2 then provided many more images, including multiple videos of group sex and multiple videos made inside the football locker room showing athletes in various stages of undress, according to the documents.
Victim 2 told university police he recorded the locker room videos while “under duress,” according to the documents. A Penn State spokeswoman said police found no evidence the sexual acts shown in the video were not consensual.
Li at one point told Victim 2 she would never be caught and, if that were possible, it would have happened after she previously exposed Victim 1 on Franklin’s Twitter feed, according to the documents.
She told Victim 2 she “likes doing this to athletes,” according to documents.
The Centre Daily Times in State College reported athletes have been victimised in five states, including Alabama and Florida. However, Bernie Cantorna, the district attorney in Centre County, said the local investigation didn’t involve any such connections, and that he didn’t know where the information came from.
After about three weeks, on Sept. 26, Victim 2 realised Li would continue to demand more images. He stopped responding and blocked her, according to the documents.
Li then said she would share his images on Instagram at 8pm on Sept 27. Victim 2 notified the coaching staff and the athletic department. The athletic department helped him take down the images. However, Li immediately created new versions of the post.
Li then put the images in a Dropbox folder accessible to the public; university police were able to download copies of 33 videos and images involving Penn State athletes.
The Penn State University Police Department got search warrants to obtain information such as account identifiers and Internet Protocol addresses and activity logs related to Dropbox, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
However, Cantorna, the district attorney, said investigators have been unable to identify Li, which he said could actually be more than one person. So the images remain out there, with one or more people presumably free to do with them as they please.
Cantorna said Li is obviously highly knowledgeable about how to avoid creating an online trail.
He said he doesn’t know Li’s motive, beyond the actions described in the documents. He said there was no attempt to exhort money or anything beyond the explicit images.
In one online exchange preserved as evidence in the case, Li said: “Nothing against the players. Just payback on (redacted name). I don’t watch football or care for it.”
In an apparent response to Instagram comments, she said “why are you being mean to me and not these boys who sent these videos out to strangers from (T)inder.”
Although the local investigation is over, federal officials are investigating the case, likely because Li is probably from out-of-state and may have committed similar crimes in multiple states, according to Cantorna.
He said he didn’t know details of the federal investigation, other than “the scope is to identify the person who’s involved.” He said it was likely triggered by university police reaching out to federal officials for help in collecting digital information stored in other states.
Cantorna also said it’s possible a federal investigation was already underway.
Although the State College investigation ended for reasons including victims not wanting to further pursue the case, it’s possible a federal prosecution will eventually require their involvement, Cantorna said.
Foulkrod, the Harrisburg University expert, said it’s hard to know how often people are victimised with shared images “because frankly many don’t want to draw further attention to it out of embarrassment.”
Such crimes have increased with the rise in use of social media, said a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which employs experts in following digital trails of criminals such as those who distribute child pornography online.
Law enforcement agencies, especially smaller departments, face a challenge in having the knowledge and resources needed to prosecute such crimes and help the victims.
It’s “extremely hard” to remove all copies of images once they’ve appeared online, according to the attorney general’s office.
“People can capture screenshots or download copies of posted images and repost them elsewhere. In some cases, the images are sold or traded by the perpetrator and the buyers repost them,” the spokesperson said. “This causes added stress and trauma, as the images can be reposted without warning.”
A devastating example of the stress and harm came in March, when a 17-year-old Michigan boy killed himself after sharing sexual images with someone who then demanded money or the images would be shared with his family and Instagram followers.
Authorities said such “cybersextortion” can involve con artists and professionals who target people through social media and gain their trust, leading to exchanges of intimate details and images. The boy believed he was communicating with a female.
His family allowed law enforcement to release details in order to help people understand and avoid the threat. Authorities noted such criminals can use social media sites such as Facebook to gain personal information for use in targeting and gaining trust of victims.
In the event someone is prosecuted, courts can order them to never share the images under penalty of prosecution. People can also use tools such as Google alerts to find out when images have been posted, and then have them removed.
The attorney general’s spokesperson said teens, “tweens” and people with intellectual disabilities are most vulnerable to such crimes, although “anyone could fall prey to this type of harassment.”
The spokesperson said it’s important to remember that social media profiles can easily be faked, created solely for the purpose of luring people into sharing information that will be used against them.
“When you’re talking to someone online, you can’t believe they are who they say they are. It’s all too common in today’s society,” Cantorna says. – pennlive.com/Tribune News Service