Sprawled on her bed, amongst fluffy pink pillows and stuffed toys, a lithe blonde girl recounts the mundane details of her day.
She chews gum as she types on her keyboard, fielding questions from her friends on the video chat site Blog TV – it’s tagline “You’re Featured!”
She hums between long pauses as new viewers log in. The counter quickly rolls – 298, 299, 300. Within 20 minutes, one viewer asks the teen to do something obscene. A request she dismisses swiftly, with the words, “GET LOST CREEEEEEP!!!!”.
This virtual world, though seemingly safe, is far from it.
As Patrick McGuire, the Toronto-based managing editor for Vice magazine, found out – there’s a small group of them, however, who are not content with simply watching.
This community of sexual extortionists, known as “cappers,” target teens like Amanda Todd, known to be a user of BlogTV.
Cappers are individuals who lurk in video-chat rooms with the sole purpose of surreptitiously taking screenshots and recording video of the person they’re chatting with, says McGuire, who has been investigating the seedy subculture’s links to Amanda’s story.
It is the type of torment that Amanda describes in her video – detailing how one user got her to “flash,” then began to blackmail her a year later by sending the screen capture to classmates – that led to her suicide.
The “cappers” exploits are celebrated in the now-defunct “Daily Capper,” a weird animated newscast on which awards are handed out for “capper of the year,” “camwhore of the year” and “blackmailer of the year.”
McGuire says from what he’s seen, it appears the men shower compliments on the young girls, then eventually get them to comply with sexual requests.
“If you watch the Amanda’s video, she talks about these guys telling her she’s stunning and beautiful,” he says. “They prey into certain vulnerabilities to get this level of trust.”
But it’s also evident some of the girls seek the attention. For McGuire, investigating the cappers has been stomach-turning at times, but more so it has been alarming. He sees the community of predators who hide in plain sight as a very serious and quickly growing problem online and only now starting to get attention.
“The problem with this world was, it was basically unseen before I started pulling everything apart,” says McGuire.
“Pedophilia is not new, but the element of surveillance and observation and the fact that the Daily Capper is presented as entertainment is truly horrifying. There seems to be this sense of pride amongst these people. They make celebrities out of the most notorious blackmailer.”
In 2010, a person with the screen name Kody1206 won that title for his harassing another young girl.
Days after Amanda’s death, the hacktivist group Anonymous named Kody1206 as her blackmailer and proceeding to reveal his real identity online.
Police will not say if they are aware of the “capper” community, but have up to 25 investigators working on Amanda’s case.
Calls to the RCMP’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, via E division and Ottawa, were not returned.
Sadly, sexual exploitation and luring is all too common online.
According to Predator Watch, an initiative of the Coquitlam-based Children of the Street Society, one in five youth aged 10–17 years have been solicited sexually while on the Internet. Seventy-five per cent do not tell a parent.
Executive director Diane Sowden has seen online exploitation explode in the recent years, moving from a more visible venue of the street to the hidden confines of video chatrooms.
“Education, education, education – parents need to learn about what their kids are doing online and make sure their children are educated about Internet safety,” says Sowden, comparing it to the warnings she got as a child about “stranger danger.”
Tell them how one supposedly innocent photograph sent to a boyfriend could be circulated for thousands to see, including pedophiles and future employers, she recommends.
Most children don’t want to talk to their parents about their experiences online because they believe they won’t be understood.
“Technology is continually changing, so this education has to be ongoing for both parents and their children,” she says.
New preliminary research findings, released last week by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, provide greater insight into child luring crime, as well as ways to better protect children.
The study examined 264 reports made by the public to Cybertip.ca, Canada’s tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children, about online luring between September 2007 and June 2011. Some reports about online luring came from family members of the young person being victimized, as well as the victims themselves. A percentage of these reports also included text and chat logs, which aided researchers in further examining the interactions and techniques offenders used in luring children online.
“From our preliminary findings, what we are seeing is adult offenders using a variety of ways to manipulate children to increase their compliance in order to sexually exploit them online,” said executive director Lianna McDonald. “The research shows that suspects use persistence, threats, and try to normalize sexual behaviour by sharing sexually explicit images and information as well as behaving in sexually inappropriate ways.”
Preliminary results of a Cybertip.ca study reveal:
• 85.9% of identified victims were girls;
• The mean age of the victims was 13 years;
• The mean age of the suspects was 25;
• In 50% of the cases, reports were made by a family member and in a third of cases, the victim made the report;
• In 24% of the cases, the young person was threatened by the suspect and in the largest number of cases the threat involved distributing existing images of the victim;
• In 38.6% of the cases, instant messaging was used by suspects to lure victims;
• In 35.5% of the cases, suspects either sent victims sexual images of themselves, or requested the young person to go on a webcam whereupon the young person would see a sexualized image of the suspect.
• Cybertip is Canada’s national tipline for reporting the online sexual abuse of children, operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. Reports can be made online at www.cybertip.ca or by calling 1 866-658-9022.
• The Door that’s not Locked is an Internet safety portal, operated by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. The Door that’s not Locked is a comprehensive, easy-to-use website designed to help keep kids safe. The site is a one-stop shop for parents, teachers, and the general public on all things related to Internet safety.