Sexual predators who victimize children on the Internet are now becoming targets of a different kind of online predator – and law enforcement officials are hunting them all down.
In the past five years, federal authorities have arrested more than 11,000 "online predators," at least in part as a result of officers posing as minors on the Internet to attract would-be pedophiles. But the FBI is increasingly seeing cases of computer-savvy scammers posing as minors online to steal financial information or extort money from those would-be pedophiles.
The FBI is currently investigating a man and woman in Miamisburg, Ohio, who allegedly engaged seven men, including a middle school teacher in New York, in sexually explicit conversations on the Internet and then "tricked" them into divulging personal information and financial records, according to court documents obtained by Fox News.
The man and woman also allegedly tried to extort money from some of the men by threatening to reveal the men's sexually explicit conversations online, according to the court documents.
"This is definitely not the first of its kind," one FBI official said. There have been "several instances where the same activity was done to blackmail would-be offenders into sending money to the perpetrators," he said.
In the Ohio case, the couple under investigation engaged "a large number" of men last year in sexually explicit conversations over the Yahoo! instant messaging service, according to court documents. The couple allegedly sent images of female models to the men, who believed they were talking to the girls in the photos. But the couple also sent files to the men that, once opened and executed, gave "full and unauthorized access to [their] computer system," according to court documents.
"The subjects had gained access to the usernames and passwords to various Web sites accessed by the target males, including eBay, PayPal, and Deutsche Bank," court documents said. "The PayPal and eBay Web sites can store information about a user's bank accounts and credit cards. By gaining access to users' PayPal and eBay usernames and passwords, a subject could access and transfer funds from users' bank accounts and credit cards."
A Latin teacher at Edward Town Middle School in Sanborn, N.Y. was allegedly one of the couple's victims. The teacher had engaged in a sexually explicit conversation with someone he thought was a minor, but he was actually talking to what court documents called an "intruder."
"The intruder threatened to send a video detailing the conversations to ... Edward Town Middle School if [the teacher] failed to comply with the subject's demands," court documents said.
Shortly after the teacher told the "intruder" he did not have "sufficient resources" to comply with the demand, someone logged on to the school's internal system — using the teacher's username and password — and posted a link to the teacher's sexually explicit conversation.
The FBI has interviewed the teacher, but no federal charges have been filed against him, according to a search of court records.
In February, FBI agents raided the couple's home, after tracking the "intruder" to the home. Fox News has decided not to name the couple. In executing a search warrant, they seized computers and "computer related equipment," according to court documents.
FBI agents returned to the home last week, taking with them a desktop computer system that had a large "cartoon girl's face" on the front of it.
Charges have yet to be filed against anyone in the home, but a law enforcement official said charges could be coming.
It's unclear whether a motive in the case would be to obtain money or to punish pedophiles. But Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington, said extortion cases often target people who are "particularly vulnerable."
"In a case like this, I suppose exposing someone for being [involved with] child pornography fits that bill," he said.
Asked whether he thought authorities should be easier on those who target pedophiles and other criminals, Bresson declined to comment, insisting, "Those are more prosecutorial decisions."
FBI officials in Washington and in other parts of the country didn't know exactly how many such cases they've worked on involving pedophiles being targeted online, but one official said "several offices" across the country have investigated similar crimes.
In 2002 the FBI arrested three men in Kentucky for extorting money from men who visited a "fake" child-pornography Web site, according to an FBI official.
The men hacked into their victims' computers and demanded money, insisting that if they didn't comply authorities would be notified that they visited a child-pornography site.
Twenty-one people from across the country sent the men money, totaling nearly $8,000 in two months, according to an Associated Press report at the time.
Attorneys for the three men said their goal was to target child pornographers and punish them.