A Pennsylvania man arrested Wednesday stands accused of tricking teenage girls into sending him revealing pictures of themselves and then using those images in a cycle of extortion that even extended to demands for photos of one girl's mother.
A 10-page affidavit filed by an FBI agent in U.S. District Court described the scheme, which mirrors others reported nationwide. In an age when every teen has a cell phone and sending a photo takes just a few keystrokes, such schemes have even earned their own name: sextortion.
"Sextortion is a serious problem," said Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, a volunteer organization that gets daily calls from teens trapped by predators. "Our kids are giving them so much ammunition. ... It's like shooting fish in a barrel."
Russell R. Freed, a 43-year-old from Brentwood, Pa., was arrested and detained pending a hearing Friday. A Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission engineering project manager, he now faces charges of extorting visual depictions of minors engaged in sexual conduct. Some of the activity charged may have occurred at a turnpike office, according to an FBI affidavit.
According to the FBI affidavit, Freed texted a 15-year-old girl starting in September, requesting pornographic pictures. She complied, thinking the texts were from her boyfriend.
When she realized they weren't and balked at sending more, the tone turned threatening, according to the affidavit. She was told if she didn't send more, her earlier pictures would be forwarded to friends and family.
Her mother got a message through a Facebook account demanding pictures -- and warning that, if she didn't comply, images of her daughter would be sent far and wide. The mother went to police, and a Ross, Pa., detective began posing as her in communications with the man.
Another friend of the victim reported she was tricked into sending revealing pictures by a texter identifying himself as "Jordan." The affidavit indicated it was Freed. At one point, the texter suggested a three-way sexual act.
FBI investigators tracked some of the cellphone activity to the turnpike commission's Western Regional Office in New Stanton, where Freed earns a $66,770 annual salary. Police stopped a turnpike-issued car Wednesday, found the phone inside and arrested Freed, according to the complaint.
Aftab said she saw her first sextortion case 10 years ago. A trickle of cases followed, but it has grown to a torrent as picture-taking phones have become ubiquitous.
"If you've got a cell phone in your hand, it's photo capable," she said. There's no technical barrier when a youth is urged by friends to take a revealing picture and send it on, she said. From there, the image can go anywhere.
Aftab said she has seen such photos fall into the hands of people who have threatened to kill or rape the young person if they don't send more. Short of that, threats to provide the photos to parents, friends, school officials or employers can render teens vulnerable.
"We see kids who are actually forced into real-life meetings for sexual purposes to avoid these things becoming public," Aftab said.
The perpetrators can face multiple charges, including child pornography, extortion and exploitation counts, she said.
Parents need to do more than lecture their kids, she said.
Kids "need to understand that they are going to be victimized by the big, creepy, slimy people that they want to avoid," she said, adding that they need to know that adults will be checking their cell phones as long as they live under the same roof.
"The old-fashioned 'let me see it' spot check works pretty well," she said.
FBI agents and Ross police were working the case Wednesday evening and could not comment.
(Contact Rich Lord at email@example.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)