SALT LAKE CITY — On any given day you can find Melissa Esplin playing a game of catch with her young son in the family’s backyard or working alongside her husband in their Salt Lake County home. Or you might find the happily married mother of two in front of the computer, where she has grown a successful online craft blog and calligraphy business.
So, she was nothing short of shocked and disgusted when she awakened one morning to a stream of online messages, from men all over the world, propositioning her for sex.
"I was like what is going on? This is kind of ridiculous," Esplin said.
It was unlike anything she had ever seen before.
Extorted by a revenge porn site
The messages alerted Esplin that her photos were posted on a revenge porn website where someone had copied her appropriate online photos and posted them next to sexually explicit images of another woman. Next to the photos were her full name, the city she lives in and her contact information.
"That's not an aspect of the Internet that I ever interact with. And it's just, I hate seeing the underbelly of the Internet."
Worse, the site demanded she pay $400 if she wanted her photos and information taken down.
Immediately, she grew concerned about the damage a post like this could do to her reputation.
"The fact that possibly my name had been sullied and my name is my image and my image is my business,” she said.
Esplin didn’t know what to do or how to get it removed, let alone who could have copied her online pictures and posted them to a porn site. That’s when she contacted the KSL investigators for help.
Report cyber extortion to the FBI
The KSL Investigators told Esplin to report her case to FBI cyber crime investigators in Salt Lake City, which she did by filling out a federal complaint form online at IC3.gov.
With the FBI on the case, Esplin fired off an e-mail to the site registrar, EuroDNS — which specifically says they don’t allow illicit or fraudulent info on their site. KSL investigator Debbie Dujanovic made phone calls demanding her photos and personal information be removed from the revenge porn site.
Remove my photos!
Between the calls and the emails, Dujanovic and Esplin found themselves in a virtual world of confusion that spanned the globe.
EuroDNS passed Dujanovic to a company in the Philippines. She called them twice and her calls went unanswered. In addition, Dujanovic sent an email to an address posted on the revenge porn site and got no response. Esplin’s email also went unanswered.
So, we turned to security experts.
This could happen to you
Matthew Might is a professor at the University of Utah who specializes in Internet security, and he predicts this type of cyber extortion will grow due to the volume of photographs posted online.
“Unfortunately I do see trends like this increasing over time, simply because it's so easy for attackers to pull this sort of stuff off,” said Might.
As for how Esplin’s photos wound up on a porn site, Might suggests that the sites themselves troll the Internet and hijack personal images, then place them next to pornographic ones. Initially, some of those sexually explicit messages Esplin received may have been from the site itself to alert her that her photos were there, because an extortion scheme doesn’t work if the victim doesn’t know they're being extorted.
Don’t pay a dime
Even if a revenge porn site promises to remove your photos if you pay up, Might said don’t spend one dime. Once you give a credit card number, or wire money to the site, there is no guarantee the site will follow through.
"They have no reason to stick to $400. And they have no reason to actually take the pictures down,” Might warned.
A blogger’s advice
Esplin said she will keep on blogging, because next to being a wife and mother, it’s her passion. Because of blogging, she has more than 3,000 images already posted online and believes quitting now would give victory to the revenge porn site.
Esplin said her inspirational and creative blog outshines one unfavorable post. And a true blogger at heart, she shares good advice with future victims.
"When it does happen, don't let it waste your time. Contact authorities, get on it right away and move on."