Mysterious text to child's phone could lead to extortion

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SALT LAKE CITY— At KSL Newsradio, there's always something interesting to talk about. But not even veteran host Jay McFarland could've predicted how odd things were about to get.

McFarland, who co-hosts KSL Newsradio's afternoon show "The Browsers," usually has his cellphone as close as the microphone. This day, while on the air, McFarland's phone lit up with a number he didn't recognize and a text that seemed benign, at least at first.

"The text simply said, 'did you leave your phone number in the back of a textbook?' And I said, 'I don't know, I leave my number in a lot of places,’ ” McFarland told KSL investigator Debbie Dujanovic.

With McFarland's response, the messages from the unknown texter went from strange to sexual in nature.

As part of their afternoon radio show, McFarland and his cohost Amy Iverson will, from time to time, test online scams to figure out how a scheme works and then warn listeners.

With that in mind, McFarland did not text back that he was an afternoon radio host. Instead, he texted back using his cohost's name, Amy, and told the texter he was a teenager.

"I told him I was a 15-year-old girl. That seemed to pique their interest." McFarland kept "Amy's" end of the conversation clean. But the mysterious texter didn't give up.

He texted back and said he was a teenager named Conner who attended a junior high school in Salt Lake County. Conner asked "Amy" to engage in inappropriate behavior and instructed her to delete her text messages so "Amy's" dad couldn't find out.

"We were all sitting around my phone in shock at how quickly this had gone in this direction with a complete stranger off a text," said McFarland.

"Amy" tested Conner's claim that he attended a junior high school near Salt Lake City. Conner texted back with an incorrect response. And later, when McFarland and Dujanovic called Conner, a person answered, claimed his name was Conner, then the call got disconnected.

Due to the nature of the messages the mysterious texter was sending, KSL reported the incident to law enforcement.

We were all sitting around my phone in shock at how quickly this had gone in this direction with a complete stranger off a text.

–Jay McFarland, co-hosts KSL Newsradio's show "The Browsers"

Retired FBI special agent: "The entire world has access to your child"

"It's a phishing scam directed toward a child to potentially exploit a child," explained retired FBI special agent Sonja Nordstrom.

Nordstrom, who investigated child predator cases for the FBI, says what happened to "Amy" is similar to other cases involving real children.

Predator builds trust; child sends an inappropriate picture.

"They will then use that as a form of extortion and they'll say now you have to give me this, now you have to give me that or I'm sending this to everybody you know."

Nordstrom pointed out, anyone can send random text messages until they find a child who is willing to respond. She noted it's difficult to know the real age of a stranger who sends a text.

"We don't know if this is a 12-year-old or an 80-year-old," said Nordstrom as she reviewed the text messages sent to McFarland's cellphone.

Tips for parents

Nordstrom says protecting children from mysterious text messages doesn't mean taking away a child's phone or barring them from texting.

"You tell a kid they can't have something, they're going to find a way," said Nordstrom.

Instead, Nordstrom says, parents should remind their child, "I'm the person who cares the most about you and I'm the person you need to trust."

Nordstrom says parents should encourage their child to come to them when they receive a text message that makes them feel uncomfortable or a message from a stranger.

The retired FBI special agent says children who've fallen victim will withdraw from family and friends, become stressed, and their grades may begin to fall.

"It's just this horrible vicious circle and it's completely debilitating and we've had some very bad cases like that."

Nordstrom recommends parents visit the following Web pages to learn more: Net Smartz Website and FBI Parents guide to internet safety.


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Debbie Dujanovic


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