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Wyoming Missing Person Authorities Warn Of Online Missing Teen Scam

in News/Crime

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By Jen Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

The executive director of a Wyoming missing person nonprofit is sounding the alarm about an uptick of phishing scams involving missing people posts on social media.

Desirée Tinoco, founder of Missing People of Wyoming, said what began as one scam involving a missing teenage boy has spiraled out of control as scams infiltrated her group’s Facebook page and several other public group pages throughout Natrona County and the state. 

As someone who is well-versed in parsing out scammers, this particular one caught Tinoco off-guard. 

“I’ve never seen this before,” she said. “The fact they are changing the picture of the missing person and reusing (it) is really sick and scary.” 

Photos, Descriptions Don’t Match

Tinoco became aware of it after sharing a post for a missing teen named “Tyler Buckland” by a Facebook user named “Kelly.” A user pointed out to Tinoco the same post later morphed to a banking scam. 

A post with “Tyler’s” photo and story showed up again on another local Casper social media site as “Tyler Tommy.” It had been shared by “Leah Tommy,” who claimed to be his mom, Tinoco said.

The story was the same about his leaving for school and not coming home. The description did not match the photo nor did it give specific details with a geographical location. Like the other post, the comments had been turned off.

Bots And Fake Profiles

Upon further research, Tinoco read about similar schemes involving “Tyler” and other missing people in Missouri and elsewhere where scammers were using bots and fake profiles to con users into sharing their phishing schemes by altering the post after the original is shared. 

Think of it as a Trojan Horse sneaking in a digital billboard. Once in place, the scammer can manually change the post so the user is then unwittingly sharing that particular phishing scheme. 

The schemes range from fake rentals or real-estate offers to any number of other scams. 

For example, the original post might be for a missing person or a puppy that was found or someone who is wanted by police. Posts, in other words as Tinoco noted, that evoke emotions and prompt people to share them among their friends and on other public or group pages. 

Because users are not warned about activity on that post, they won’t see that the post has been altered unless they go back and check.

Tinoco thinks two snuck past her and the co-administer of her group’s page, but both have since been taken down from the Missing People of Wyoming Facebook page. 

From the posts on her page, Tinoco has identified the bots as originating from Russia, Africa and India.

Warning From Law Enforcement

The Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigations, which runs the statewide missing person database, said it’s aware of the scam.

“We’ve started hearing about the scams going around with a missing person attached to it,” Katie Koskelowski, DCI control terminal specialist and manager of the missing persons clearinghouse, told Cowboy State Daily in an email Monday morning.

The “Tyler” scam has been shared in almost every state at this point, she said, and urged people to check the database to make sure the missing person has been verified before sharing. 

Vigilance Is Key

Tinoco reiterated the importance of vetting these posts, which appear to be cropping up in record time. 

“Check your sources before you share someone’s missing person fliers. It takes the average person five minutes to verify if the case is still active,” she said. “It’s happening on lots of the buy and sell pages and local social media groups.”

Tinoco said she verifies every missing person post on her page within 24 hours. She vets it against the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation’s database or with the law enforcement agency sharing the post. 

She further advises people to check out that particular person’s page before sharing their post. Typically, fake bots are easy to spot based on their user names and profiles. 

The comments on the posts also are muted so people can’t alert other people to the scam. 

“People aren’t aware what they’re sharing and think they are doing something good. That’s the most alarming thing about this particular scam is that they are preying on people’s good intentions.”

Who is ‘Tyler’?

It’s not clear if Tyler is a real person or whether he ever been missing. 

A search by Cowboy State Daily to track down his case led to a YouTube video on a site called NewsRandom. The video claims that “Tyler Bucklandon” did not return home from his first day of school in St. Louis, Missouri, on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Other videos have appeared on TikTok with photos resembling the same “Tyler” in the various missing person posters posted by different “mothers.”

Many users on Facebook have flagged it as a scam in several states. 

Cowboy State Daily could further find no news accounts of “Tyler’s” missing person case.  

“It’s unclear if he is a real person or was ever missing,” Tinoco said. “It’s really disturbing that someone would exploit this boy’s picture.”

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EXCLUSIVE: Wyoming Teens Among Hundreds Victimized In ‘Prolific And Malicious’ International Sextortion

in News/Crime/Internet
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By Jen Kocher, Cowoby State Daily

A Bangladeshi national has been charged in Alaska federal court on 13 counts of operating a child exploitation enterprise involving hundreds of teens around the country and world, including at least six minor victims in Wyoming.

Zobaidul Amin, 24, was arrested Sept. 19 where he lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in what the Federal Bureau of Investigation calls one of its “most prolific and malicious sextortion schemes” to date, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska.

The federal case was a joint effort led by the FBI Anchorage office in conjunction with multiple law enforcement agencies, including Wyoming, Alaska, West Virginia, Oregon and Florida, along with Malaysian authorities.

Amin has been indicted on 12 charges related to the possession and production of child pornography by the Malaysia Attorney Generals Chambers, where he will remain in prison. The charges are outlined in a 50-page redacted grand jury indictment. Other court documents related to the case have been sealed.

Indictment ‘A Huge Win’

Chris McDonald, head of Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit, said it’s rare a foreign national would be tried for crimes committed against children in the United States and credits the FBI and Malaysia for working together to bring charges against Amin.

“I have a hard time expressing how rare it is to get all those moving parts to come together,” McDonald told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “We put a good case together in Wyoming to help the Alaskan FBI, and they did great police work.” 

McDonald said his team was aware of six minor victims in Wyoming, although he suspects that true number is higher. He also said it was really frustrating to know the identity of the alleged perpetrator and not be able to pursue charges internationally.

“This guy has just victimized kids in Wyoming on a long-term basis,” he said. “It’s a huge win to bring him to justice and get a sense of closure for the victims and their families and our team.”

Fake Profiles, Threats And Extortion

The indictment against Amin’s outlines his use of social media apps such as Snapchat and Instagram to exploit hundreds minor victims in the United States and abroad by using threats to coerce the teens to produce sexually explicit photographs and videos of sadistic and illegal sexual images and acts, according to federal court documents.

Amin alleged victims are younger than 18 and as young as 11 by posing as teenage boys or girls – and sometimes a bisexual or gay youth – using fake photos of himself, according to court documents filed in the federal District Court in Alaska.

He reportedly asked the minors about their sexual orientations before requesting they send a nude photo. After getting the photo, Amin then would extort the teens, threatening to expose the photos to the victims’ friends and followers on social media unless they provided additional sexually explicit photos or videos.

After threatening to share photos, Amin would direct the teens to connect with him on Snapchat, where he demanded they produce a specific number of images and videos per day. The images included their genitalia or videos of them vaginally and anally penetrating themselves with various objects.

Sometimes Amin made good on threats to expose the sexually explicit content to friends and family on social media, according to the indictment. In other instances, he promised to stop extorting the minor if they helped him find new victims or sent him nudes of other teens.

In some cases, Amin would masturbate during video chats with minors while the victims engaged in sexually explicit conduct, according to court documents.

When his social media accounts got shutdown or flagged, Amin would create new ones, often using his victims’ phone numbers or requiring them to provide their personal information to create new accounts.

At the time the indictment was filed, Amin had used more than 80 Snapchat accounts and more than 40 Instagram accounts, some of which remain active, according to the indictment.

Amin also is accused of sharing the images and videos he’d get from his victims in drop box folders with at least three co-conspirators who he required to sextort the minors with him to view the content.

Emotional Trolling

Amin frequently taunted his victims, preying on their insecurities and encouraging self-harm, according to court documents.

When questioned by one teen why he was doing this to her, Amin responded that, “Depressed girls are the preetiest [sic] not even lying.”

Several minor victims also threatened to harm themselves in chats with Amin. In one such exchange with a teenage girl, Amin responded, “One of the girls I did this to she even send me a vid of her slitting her throat.”

Many of his victims confronted Amin about his age, with some calling him a “pedophile.”

One teen threatened Amin by stating that a family member was a police officer, to which Amin responded, “ur local pd won’t do shit.”

‘Prolific And Malicious Sextortion Scheme’

Amin’s crimes are among “the most prolific and malicious sextortion scheme” that has been investigated by the FBI, said FBI Anchorage Field Office Special Agent Antony Jung.

“This exploitation enterprise targeted hundreds of minors in the United States and abroad through popular social media platforms,” Jung said. “Children would then be coerced into producing sexually explicit material and terrorized with threats of exposure if they did not continue.

“The protection of our children extends beyond borders, and this case demonstrates the multi-jurisdictional approach among local, state, federal and international law enforcement partners to maximize our efforts in the pursuit of justice.”

Since Amin has been federally indicted in Alaska and charged in Malaysia, Wyoming won’t pursue additional charges, McDonald said.

According to the laws of Malaysia, the punishment for a person who makes, produces, directs the making or production of or participates or engages in any way with child pornography is imprisonment for no more than 30 years and a whipping of not less than six strokes.

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Rise In Internet Crimes Against Children In Wyoming Prompts Educational Effort

in News/Education/Crime

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By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily

Internet crimes against children are on the rise in Wyoming and are focusing on increasingly younger victims, according to authorities.

The increase marks an alarming trend toward the normalization of sexually exploitative behaviors among teens and children that make them more vulnerable to predators, experts said.

Chris McDonald, special agent and head of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit for Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, said that the state had another banner year with regard to the numerous cyber tips that he and his team received about potential exploitation of children online.

In 2021, ITAC received more than 600 tips, leading to 33 arrests, compared to 262 tips in 2019 and 531 in 2020. The tips come from social media and internet providers as well as the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and other reporting agencies. 

Of the 33 arrests in 2021, many were for producing or sharing child pornography involving 23 live victims who were rescued through law enforcement efforts. Police have also made arrests in cases of adults traveling to have sex with children, as well as cases involving “sextortion” and blackmail.

Staying ahead of the predators

As a father himself and someone who typically would avoid social media, McDonald said that adult oversight is key to keeping children safe. He and his team are seeing an increase in predatory activity on platforms such as KIK, Snapchat and TikTok, as well as in online and multi-player games.

“Everything is happening at the speed of the internet,” he said. “Predators are able to hide themselves. It’s like an arms race any time there is new platform or app.”

While officers can’t control the predators, they can do everything in their power to educate teens about the potential threats and the ramifications of their internet activity and behavior.

Terri Markham sees risky online behavior every day in her role as co-founder and executive director of Uprising Wyoming, a Sheridan-based nonprofit focused on education and raising awareness about human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. 

In the roughly three years since she founded the nonprofit, Markham has traversed the state working with law enforcement, first responders and other professionals in the field to raise awareness about the issue and working with teens to teach them to recognize and protect themselves against online predation.

What she’s found in working with teens in the middle and high school levels has alarmed her, both in the number of times teens have been approached by potential predators online as well as their blasé attitude toward sharing nude photos of themselves or their peers.

Markham shared the results of anonymous surveys from workshops with youths age 12 and up from around the state in which 45% reported being approached by a stranger online in a way that made them feel uncomfortable.

In that same group, 15% said they had social media accounts that their parents didn’t know about while 13% said they had sent or received nude photos or videos online.

An additional 8% reported drug or alcohol abuse in their home, which is another vulnerability, Markham noted. 

Even more shocking to her was the three disclosures from a group of 12- to 13-years-olds she spoke with recently who reported active cases of sextortion in which someone was threatening to release a nude photo or video of them against their wishes. 

Markham said her group learned that children in that age group needed to be equipped with youth critical thinking skills to help them identify when they are in a potentially exploitative situation.  

“What we discovered is that we were really a little too late in talking about this topic with this age group,” she said. “It often leads to just giving them the language to describe experiences that had already happened or were happening to them.”

Worse yet, Markham said, is that it’s becoming very commonplace to see younger children, as young as 9 or 10, also sharing nude photos across a variety of social media platforms and apps.

As a result of what Markham and her team were finding, they’ve decided to continue focusing these workshops with youth across the state in order to help mitigate these dangerous behaviors that make them particularly vulnerable to predators. 

“It’s becoming so normalized that it’s getting easier for predators to exploit these children,” she said. “They are growing up with this and thinking it’s normal.”

Along with offering training for children, educators, law enforcement and other professionals, Uprising also conducts training sessions for parents and care givers to make them aware of the problem while giving them tools to help keep their children safe. 

“We’re all about risk reduction,” she said. “Both immediate and long term. We want to let kids know that these images can come back to haunt them and how important it is to report it instead of just re-sharing or not staying anything. That’s where it starts. Risky behavior leads to other risky behavior when a stranger comes around.”

Like Markham, McDonald focuses a lot of his time doing in-class presentations throughout the state.

“We can’t get rid of it all,” he said, “so we have to figure out how to help the kiddos protect themselves online.”

For more information about this issue and opportunities for education and training, contact Markham at Uprising Wyoming. Additional resources include Thorn.org and Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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