Thursday, May 07, 2009

Facebook Helps Cybercrime Fighters in Case

Facebook Stranger Pictures, Images and Photos

School resource officers from across Alabama and the nation fielded complaints about an Internet extortionist badgering girls for nude pic­tures. Victims even created a Facebook page warning fe­males not to talk to the per­son with the username Meta­scape.

Metascape turned out to be Jonathan Vance, an Alabama man who made lewd cyber re­quests of 206 girls and young women and attempted to hack into and gain control of their e-mail, Facebook and MySpace accounts, federal authorities say. He was suc­cessful in at least 53 cases.

Johnathan Vance will serve 18 years in prison and then the rest of his life on probation as a sex offender.

Those complaints, includ­ing several from Birmingham-area high school students, sparked an investigation across state and federal juris­dictions. The groundbreaking case will be used as a tem­plate for cyber harassment cases and used to train law enforcement officials and prosecutors, federal authori­ties said.

This type of cybercrime is relatively new, and federal au­thorities said they know of no other case that comes close to the size of this one.

"We learned a lot from this case," said Assistant U.S. At­torney Daniel Fortune, who prosecuted the case. "We're going to use this case to edu­cate law enforcement, teach­ers, students and parents."

Vance, 24, of Auburn, was sentenced to 18 years in fed­eral prison last week after pleading guilty to several charges, including attempted production of child pornogra­phy and interstate extortion. Upon release Vance will have to report to a federal proba­tion officer for the rest of his life and register as a sex of­fender.

Only 53 victims agreed to cooperate in the investigation, authorities said. There likely are more victims authorities said they don't know about.
"The embarrassment factor was big in this case," said Dale Miskell, supervisory spe­cial agent for the FBI's cyber­crimes squad in Birmingham. "How can a girl go to her pa­rents and tell them what hap­pened? Even the adult victim didn't come forward until we contacted her."

Others either denied they were victims -- after being confronted with photographic evidence -- or simply refused to talk to investigators, For­tune said. Miskell said the FBI was able to identify the two minors and one adult who sent Vance nude pictures. There were four others agents were not able to identify. In some of the photos sent to Vance, authorities could not discern if the person was a minor and under what cir­cumstance Vance got the pho­tos.

'A difficult, unique case'
Authorities said from Janu­ary 2006 to June 2008, Vance targeted girls and women in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Missouri, ranging in age from 14 to 26. Miskell said the FBI got involved in the fall 2007 after a Hoover High School re­source officer reported a com­plaint he received from a stu­dent.

Starting with only a screen name, Miskell said, FBI agents were able to track down Vance. Vance eluded authori­ties for a while by changing screen names -- using as many as 10 -- after word got out about Metascape.

It took the cooperation of law enforcement and victims across several jurisdictions before the FBI pinned Vance as their man. "Tracking him down was complicated . . . This was really a difficult, unique case," Fortune said.

Vance lived with his grand­parents in Auburn. He was born to a teenage mother and was adopted by his grandpa­rents as a child, according to court records. He grew up be­lieving that his mother was his sister. He was active in his church -- Vance attended church with some of his vic­tims -- and sang in the choir.

Vance's defense lawyer, Tommy Spina, said in court records and at the sentencing hearing that Vance's austere upbringing might have led to his behavior.

Agents seized his computer in December 2007, but months later, Vance bought a laptop and his conduct esca­lated. He was arrested in July.

Court records show Vance gained control of his victims' Yahoo, Hotmail, Facebook and MySpace accounts using several means. In interviews with the FBI, Vance said he would contact his victims through instant messaging and pretend to be a friend or a relative. He persuaded some victims to give him their login and password information, saying he was locked out of his own Facebook, MySpace or e-mail account.

In more complicated in­stances, Vance hacked into his victims' e-mail accounts using information from public Face­book pages, which included information such as birth dates, the names of the vic­tims' schools and their home­towns. Password protection on the e-mail accounts would use standard questions such as ZIP code, date of birth or school mascot. Once Vance had control of an e-mail ac­count, he would go to Face­book, pretend he forgot the password and have Facebook send a link to the victims' compromised e-mail account.

Victim relieved
Vance threatened to expose embarrassing details he learned if he didn't get nude photos.

In court last week, Fortune read a letter from a 14-year-old girl who ex­pressed relief that Vance was behind bars. She said she knew that taking the nude photos was wrong, "but I just wanted my Facebook back."

Fortune said authorities passed on what they learned from Vance to programmers for the social networking sites and e-mail services. "I can't say it was as a direct result of this case, but their security questions are more sophisti­cated," Fortune said. "Face­book and Yahoo said they're going to reference this case for training purposes."

The case illustrates the need for parents to know what their children are doing, Mis­kell said.

"A lot of these kids have Fa­cebook without their parents knowing it," he said. "Parents really need to talk to their kids about this."


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