(InvestigateTV) — One day, Alicia Kozak was a 13-year-old chatting online with a new friend she met online. The next day, she was trapped in a basement, secured with a dog collar, after she agreed to meet the new friend in person.
Before her horrific ordeal ended, her abductor shared tortuous sexual assaults online of the young teen.
Kozak is one of the first-known victims of internet abduction and online exploitation.
Now, more than a decade after Kozak was lured from her Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania home, thousands of other children and young adults find themselves at risk of being blackmailed in another online crime known as sextortion — where adults threaten to, or actually share, sexually-explicit images of young people.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, its cyber tipline received over 32 million reports in 2022. More than 80,000 of those reports were for “Online Enticement,” the category that includes sextortion.
“I certainly never thought in a million years that this could happen to me,” Kozak said. “My family certainly never did. When it comes to a story like mine, there are a lot of dark details.”
In 2002, Kozak, like many teenagers, loved chatting on the internet.
“I was online, and I was talking to my friends from school in a chat room, and somebody messaged me who I thought was a boy around my own age, and what I didn’t know was he had immediately begun to groom me,” Kozak said.
Because the internet was still relatively new, Kozak said she didn’t know the red flags to look for that could have clued her in on the fact she was speaking with a predator looking to take advantage of her. So, she kept chatting.
“This went on for about nine months. And on New Year’s Day, 2002, I agreed to meet this person. And to this day, I can’t tell you why. I thought I was meeting a friend. I was doing something so completely out of my character. I didn’t take my coat with me … and I left the door open just a little bit because I thought I was planning on coming right back through it,” Kozak recalled.
She said a man lured her out of her home, abducted her, and held her captive in a Virginia basement where she was raped, beaten and tortured.
Kozak said she was there for four days.
“He kept me chained to the floor by a locking dog collar,” Kozak said. “He didn’t feed me, and he broke my nose during one of the struggles. "
Kozak said on some occasions, her kidnapper live-streamed the abuse to an online audience.
She said she was given a second chance when someone watching the stream recognized her face from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s poster and called in a tip to authorities.
“And it’s believed he was going to kill me on the day that I was rescued,” Kozak said.
Ultimately, her kidnapper was convicted and sentenced to prison.
From internet chats to sextortion
Since Kozak’s abduction, internet crimes against children have skyrocketed — in large part because internet usage has become ubiquitous.
“Kids have so much more access. There are so many more pitfalls, but also predators have access to kids 24/7,” Kozak said.
As technology has evolved, so too has the way predators take advantage of children online.
According to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, there are two forms of sextortion: traditional and financial.
Traditional sextortion occurs when someone threatens to share private, often sexually explicit material with the victim’s family, friends, or the public if they do not send more images.
Financial sextortion takes it a step further, with the criminal demanding money in exchange for keeping sexual images private.
Law enforcement says in most sextortion cases, cybercriminals pretend to be somebody else, often a fellow teen. Once they gain the victim’s trust, the criminal will ask for explicit photos, then blackmail the victim for more images or money.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Timothy Simon said the agency saw an explosion in the number of financial sextortion incidents in early 2022.
“They often impersonate children of a certain age, certain characteristics and location,” Simon said. “They will locate children. Target them on any type of platform: social media, instant messaging, video chat, gaming platforms. Pretty much any internet [or] cable device that a child can be targeted on.”
The fallout for victims and their families can have catastrophic consequences.
“We’ve seen, in 2022 alone, over 12 suicides of child victims within the U.S., and that number has increased since then. So, it definitely has a devastating impact,” Simon said.
Simon said over the past year, law enforcement agencies received more than 7,000 reports of online financial sextortion of minors with at least 3,000 victims, most of whom were boys.
Simon said they are working to understand why many sextortion victims are young boys.
“Our best guess, at this point, is just the shame and embarrassment that boys feel when they produce those images,” he said.
Like other online crimes, a major hurdle in tackling sextortion is location. Law enforcement officials say many cybercriminals are from other countries, with many located in Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.
“It’s not an easy solution for the FBI just to go into other countries and take down offenders. We are working hard to do that. But as much power and authority that the FBI may have, we don’t have jurisdiction or authority in countries around the world. And that’s where our relationships and our partnerships with the host nation, law enforcement, and their government officials play a really big role,” Simon said.
‘Once your images are out there, they’re not yours anymore’
Kevin Metcalf is a deputy prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. He’s also the CEO and Founder of the National Child Protection Task Force, which provides local and regional detectives, analysts and officers access to investigative expertise and resources that sometimes are unavailable or under-funded in most law enforcement organizations.
“The law is slow to adapt to any kind of social changes, any technology. It’s very, very slow, so everybody tried to stay away from that. It’s a grey area, so I said, ‘That’s where I’ll go,’” Metcalf said.
Metcalf said a contributing factor to the increase in sextortion cases is the excessive amount of personal images people share on social media.
“Once your images are out there, they’re not yours anymore. You can’t control them,” he said. “You don’t know how many times they’ve been downloaded, how many times they’ve been shared. You don’t know how many of them that exist out here.”
To show how easy it is to find someone’s personal information, Metcalf utilized websites commonly used by cybercriminals to look up information on an InvestigateTV reporter. In a matter of seconds, Metcalf managed to find the reporter’s email addresses and phone numbers, as well as their immediate family members’ details and contact information.
Metcalf also discovered some of the reporter’s information had been potentially exposed in a data breach.
“Your email addresses, passwords, phone numbers, and your names. Physical address, license plate. All of this information is exposed on you,” Metcalf said during the demonstration. “And this is how sextortion takes place in a lot of ways.”
Metcalf explained cyber criminals can use login information exposed in a data breach to access any explicit images stored online.
“Even if you’re very careful and never sent images out, but you have some that you may not want shared in your personal storage, this is how I can get access. I can start collecting a lot of information on you,” Metcalf said.
To prevent this, Metcalf recommends using a different password for each online account, and to update those passwords frequently.
Turning a traumatic experience into advocacy
In the years since her abduction, Kozak has made it her mission to protect others — sharing her story at schools across the nation and testifying before Congress.
In addition, she has helped persuade lawmakers in 12 states to pass Alicia’s Law, which assists in securing funding for exploited children task forces.
“We have to fund the groups that can protect and rescue the children,” Kozak said. “The Internet Crimes Against Children task forces are so incredibly underfunded, and the risk is with every single child. And every single child has a device if not, more devices that they can fall victim to a predator on.”
Kozak said the best thing parents can do when it comes to prevention is have honest conversations with their children about the dangers that lurk online.
“At my presentation, at the end, I have so many kids come up to me afterwards and share such painful stories. And often they are stories of sextortion. We have to talk to kids about why that it is actually dangerous. And not just say, that it’s disrespectful to your bodies and all of these things, but there are true consequences that are potentially life-ending,” Kozak said.
If you believe your child has encountered a sextortion scheme, you can call the Homeland Security tip line at (866) 347-2423 or the FBI at (800) 225-5324. You can also visit The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website to file a report.
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