A depressing voyage into the web's darkest, most despicable corners.
Photo by Andrew B. Myers
Last October, a Canadian teenager named Amanda Todd took her own life at her home in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia. Five weeks before committing suicide, Amanda posted a video to YouTube detailing years of harassment she’d undergone after being coaxed into flashing an anonymous guy via webcam. In the video, she describes how this man continually blackmailed her into performing live-streamed strip shows. He used the topless images he had of Amanda as leverage, threatening to send them to her friends and family if she didn’t comply.
Amanda’s death was widely covered in the mainstream media, with most reporters and law-enforcement officials using the term “cyberbullying” to describe its cause. But this blanket term fails to adequately describe what was a complicated case of sexual extortion and abusive humiliation perpetrated by a blackmailer with a penchant for naked underage girls. Even worse, it was not an isolated incident. The most despicable corners of the internet house a byzantine network devoted to sharing screen-captured images of naked – and often underage – girls. And quite a few of these individuals get off on manipulating, blackmailing and shaming the young women they encounter.
On the surface, there are the mainstream and highly popular public video-chat sites like blogTV and Stickam, designed to provide an audience for anyone with a webcam and an internet connection. If you’re a Yankees fan, you can jump on blogTV to discuss the latest game; if you’re a paedophile, you can lurk around and wait for young girls to sign on. At any given time on the site, it’s not unusual to find five or six underage females publicly chatting with an audience of up to 100 people each.
The predatory scumbags who monitor these mainstream sites share the links with fellow paedophiles in chat rooms on smaller sites like Chateen and Vichatter. There are dozens of users who lurk in these chat rooms, waiting for someone to link to a girl streaming live via webcam. I have seen several screen captures that show users describing these girls as “targets”.
Once these lurkers identify a target on blogTV or a similar site, they all jump into the chat room in the hope that one of them can persuade her to get naked. If they can persuade her to show some skin, it’s referred to as a “win”, and images of the girl are screen-captured or recorded without her consent or awareness. Those who log these images call themselves “cappers”.
As mentioned above, this operation is a group effort, and a huge part of it revolves around sharing screencaps taken during these public webcam sessions. At the moment, the most popular medium for distributing these images is a message board called AnonIB, or Anonymous Image Board. On AnonIB, screencaps are categorised into subforums that correspond with various webcam chat sites. There are also subforums for different states and Canadian provinces, allowing these paedophiles to maintain an accurate filing system for their images and keep track of where in the world the girls live, as well as where they tend to hang out on the internet.
On these forums, predators post their personal screencaps and ask the community whether any other images of the girl in question exist. Usually – if they don’t already possess nude screencaps of the girl – they will also ask whether anyone has been successful in obtaining some from a previous webcam session. Often, they discuss or argue over whether a specific girl is likely to masturbate on camera. It’s a public market where images of naked minors are swapped like trading cards.
There is even a subforum for blackmail on AnonIB. It has been “hidden” since Amanda’s suicide, only accessible to those who knew its URL beforehand. Judging by the limited number of posts on the blackmail board, it’s fair to say that the majority of cappers are not outspoken blackmailers. Those who are, however, use the board like a grotesque Craigslist. When a user acquires an image of a girl he’d like to see more of, he will post this picture and then scout the forum for the blackmailer best suited for the job. In one post, a desperate user vented his displeasure: “Why are all blackmailers so fucking unreliable? I’ve used at least six different blackmailers now… And every fucking single one has ended up standing me up… Ignoring my mails, and not giving me my share of the deal… I have at least ten fresh girls ready for blackmail, with Facebook, pictures, etc. But I can’t find a reliable blackmailer.”
If you dig around enough, there is also a mention of Amanda on the blackmail board. A commenter who was upset about her suicide berated the other users. “Hope none of you know this girl because of this site,” he wrote. “She killer [sic] herself last night because she had someone black mailing her for naked picture, exactly what all your low pieces of shit are doing on here, think about what you do from here on out you fucking jokes go get some real win don’t force it.”
Perhaps more disturbing than the requests for reliable blackmailers, and the chatter about Amanda’s suicide, are the publicly discussed strategies the forum users follow to pursue a new target. Next to a close-up shot of the face of a woman – who appears to be in her early twenties – someone wrote, “This girl has issues with her parents they’re abusive and stuff. If pics got out it’d be bad for her since she just recently lost her paid internship. Stuff to leverage against her.”
Another particularly creepy thread on the blackmail board was from a guy who worked at a hotel and doubled as their de facto computer technician. He bragged about installing surveillance software on the hotel’s computers so that he could gather personal information on “hot coworkers and guests”, giving him the ammo he needed to blackmail them into sending naked pictures.
One user, who evidently had his target’s Facebook and email passwords, wrote, “In one of the emails, I found a video of her stripping and fingering herself… I figure any and all pics/vids are sent phone-phone to her boyfriend… I am going to log into her facebook, and send her a message from her own account, saying I have her video, show her screenshots, and tell her I’m sending the video to her grandma, mom, best friend, etc, unless she responds to the message with 10 nude photos and another video by midnight.”
This readiness to openly discuss the exploits of capping and blackmailing is not limited to AnonIB. In 2010, an online TV-styled show called The Daily Capper emerged on YouTube and Metacafe. Hosted by an animated news anchor, The Daily Capper repurposes footage from the children’s TV show Crashbox with a robotic voice dubbed over the original audio. The newscasts, which were initially published on a near-weekly basis, discussed girls who were appearing on sites like blogTV and Stickam, as well as relationships between cappers and blackmailers.
Cappers are a competitive bunch and often face off against rivals in the community. These rivalries were highlighted in a onetime Daily Capper ceremony in 2010 during which several awards were handed out, including one for Blackmailer of the Year. The twisted honour went to Kody1206, the capper Anonymous accused of blackmailing Amanda last October. Evidently, a cross section of these cappers and blackmailers compete to get the most caps and best blackmailing stories.
Amanda made her first appearance on The Daily Capper while she was still alive, in December 2010. In a brief segment, the news anchor provides commentary over a video that shows Amanda singing to her webcam audience. Given that The Daily Capper appears to be the source of the footage, it stands to reason that at least one of the show’s creators was the capper who recorded the video. Then, on November 10, 2012, exactly one month after Amanda’s suicide and more than one year after its last installment was published, The Daily Capper released an entire episode devoted to Amanda. Uncharacteristically, the news anchor took the moral high ground and provided information on Amanda’s blackmailing, blamed Kody1206 for her death and wagged a finger at media and law enforcement for missing out on the fact that Amanda was blackmailed by paedophiles. The video also showed chat logs that proved, at one point, cappers had shared topless images of Amanda.
I made contact with the producer of The Daily Capper, who calls himself “dc”, through Twitter, before he posted the latest video with information about Amanda’s blackmail. The producer proved to me that he owned and operated The Daily Capper by sending me a message from the show’s YouTube account. He told me that he made videos for “what they’re doing right now”. In other words, to alert the public to the dangerous, nebulous culture that is the capping scene.
The videos were uploaded to YouTube, the producer told me, so that they would be easy for the public to find; however, anyone familiar with them knows they are highly cryptic and difficult for anyone outside the capping community to comprehend. His claims made me wonder whether a more likely reason for using YouTube was that, with 1.4 billion videos currently live on the site, it was very easy to hide Daily Capper videos in plain sight among all the rants, idiotic product reviews, family videos and other crap that hardly anyone notices.
The producer said that he had “connections with a lot of the big names” in the capping world and that he had learned to mimic the cappers’ slang and behaviour (so that he could incorporate them into the videos) by spending a lot of time in their chat rooms. He told me that the reason he became aware of the capping scene was that he had spent many hours in video chat rooms, trying to meet girls around his age. The producer also said that he is 19 years old, so it’s not out of the question that he would have been interested in persuading teenage girls to undress during his 2009 to 2010 stint in the capping world. He painted a picture of himself as a do-gooder double agent, which was quickly contradicted when he told me he was “close friends” with a capper named “Viper”, a man who is absolved of guilt in the most recent Capper video regarding the blackmail of Amanda. The producer also said that he “didn’t realise how old [Viper] was until November 2010.” When I asked why he would choose to be so friendly with someone who had allegedly blackmailed young girls, the producer told me: “He’s not a blackmailer. In fact, he was against blackmail.” Adding to the dubiousness of his claims, a Daily Capper video from December 2010 has a cartoon newscaster announcing, “Many have been saying that Viper has always been a role model for Kody1206.” Since revealed to the world as one Kody Maxson, 19, the capper once only known as Kody1206 is currently being charged in British Columbia for sexual assault and sexual interference with a minor (which, as far as I can tell, are unrelated to his capping activities).
After our conversation, the producer sent me an animated video he made, also from December 2010, that depicts Viper’s plan to get screen captures of a girl named “Verica” (allegedly the niece of Viper’s girlfriend). The cartoon version of Viper, pictured as a caricature of Kim Jong-Il, opens the video by saying he has “a 15-year-old-girl” who masturbates for him “every day”. He triumphantly exclaims: “Life couldn’t get any better!” As the video proceeds, Viper finds out that an unnamed capper has blackmailed his girlfriend’s niece (who, apparently, is “hot” and has a “big ass”) and that screencaps of her were being circulated in chat rooms and traded by other cappers. He embarks on a ravenous quest to find them, and eventually succeeds.
The bizarre explanation the producer gave me as to why he would glorify Viper’s behaviour by making such a video was that Viper aided the producer in helping “girls on webcam chat sites, get sites shut down and assisted in reporting rooms. I’d give him the credit to help him get what he wanted.” He went on to say that he helped build up Viper’s reputation among cappers so that Viper could acquire more screencaps of girls. In return, Viper would help The Daily Capper get the offending chat sites shut down. This doesn’t make much sense to me, even after spending the past couple months wallowing in the muck of the convoluted capping scene.
Even more disturbing is the fact that the producer knew Amanda Todd was being blackmailed as early as December 2010 and perhaps even before that. Still, he neglected to do anything about it. When, two weeks before he released the latest Capper video detailing Amanda’s suicide, I asked him why he’d withheld this information for almost two years, he said: “I really do regret not doing it… I was wrong. I didn’t think there was anything I could do at that point. I do agree it was really stupid to just ignore it. I really can’t give a logical reason why.”
Obviously, there needs to be effective legislation and action taken against these men, but new laws alone aren’t going to solve this problem. Society needs to change the way it deals with online predators and paedophiles by focusing on prevention and treatment rather than punishment, which will require complex international laws and guidelines to help bring these offenders to justice and, hopefully, get them the help they so desperately need. Numerous requests to interview Sergeant Peter Thiessen, the media liaison in charge of the Amanda Todd case for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, were ignored.
I did, however, speak to Dr. Fred Berlin, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. Fred specialises in the study and rehabilitation of paedophiles, and when I brought up blackmailing, he was quick to point out that paedophilia and the proclivity to blackmail are not intrinsically tied. “Paedophilia just has to do with a different kind of sexual makeup,” he said. “Someone with paedophilia is no more or less likely to blackmail others than somebody who is heterosexual or homosexual. I don’t want to suggest that having the psychiatric condition of paedophilia is somehow inextricably linked to that sort of behaviour.”
This distinction of paedophilia as a sexual orientation is an important one. It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that no one chooses to be turned on by children. Just as homosexuals don’t choose to be attracted to the same sex, or heterosexuals to the opposite sex, the paedophiliac orientation is a result of genetics. It follows, then, that there are paedophiles who recognise the danger of their sexual urges and want to control them. Unfortunately, the stigma that our society has put on those who are attracted to children dissuades many of them from seeking help.
“When we say the word ‘paedophilia,’” Fred told me, “we’re not saying it in the way a physician would. We’re saying it as a way to describe someone who is less than human. Certainly, as a society, we haven’t supported the idea that many of these paedophiles are good people who are struggling and need assistance. To many that might sound like heresy, but from my perspective, as someone who has worked in this field, there are people out there who are fundamentally decent but need help to make sure they manage their sexual needs without hurting others and destroying their own lives in the process.”
As we all know, the anonymity of the internet has made it far too easy for paedophiles to lie about who they really are. In Amanda’s YouTube video, she says the man on the other end of her computer called her “perfect” and “beautiful”, which helped persuade her to flash him.
Amanda’s mother, Carol, told me that she had a very open relationship with her late daughter. Around the time of Amanda’s blackmailing, Carol said that she and her daughter were having regular conversations about the dangers of her online behaviour. Carol knew about The Daily Capper and the blackmailing world in which Amanda had unwittingly become a celebrity of sorts. She even provided police with links (provided to her anonymously via Facebook) to the newscasts and posts on paedophile forums that mentioned Amanda. But even with all of this evidence, at the time of this writing no arrests have been made in connection with Amanda’s extortion.
Carol and I discussed the potential for educating people on the complexities of this tragic and disturbing problem. “I had a daughter,” Carol said, “and I’ve been hearing the stuff people have been saying – that Amanda must have been neglected. I talked to her about what she should and shouldn’t do, and she would just nod her head and say, ‘Yes, Mum. I understand.’ Did it all get into her head? No. At that moment, kids are so impulsive. They don’t want to be lectured.”
Fred echoed Carol’s sentiments. “It’s a tremendous challenge,” he told me. “Obviously what’s happening is wrong, and it’s not the child’s fault. We can’t allow them to be in a position where they can’t say what they are really feeling. Many kids who get involved sexually with adults care about them. We need to help the children understand that what this adult did is wrong, but that ‘maybe he really did like you,’ so that it doesn’t become an even bigger betrayal of trust. It’s very hard to have a politically correct attitude about this.”
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