The Web -- even 20 years after its advent -- is still a wild, untamed beast, and we're reminded of that again by a case out of Oregon that combines social networking and extortion charges.
A 16-year-old boy from Clackamas County, Ore., is accused of taking over the MySpace and Facebook pages of two young women he knew and promising to return control if they sent him nude pictures of themselves.
Oregon police say the boy believed the whole thing was a prank. Authorities said otherwise. The boy could face charges in county juvenile court of computer crime and theft by extortion.
"This is the first time we've investigated anything that could actually be called extortion," said Lt. Jeff Lanz of the Oregon State Police. "But there's a lot of harassing behavior through text messaging and posting abusive messages on people's pages."
The two female victims are both 18 and now in college, one at Oregon State University and the other at Washington State University. Police said they grew up a few blocks from the home of the alleged perpetrator. They did not send any photos of themselves; instead, they called police. (As a matter of policy, the police said they would not release the name of the underage suspect or those of his victims.)
The Oregon case is unusual, but it sets off alarm bells for people who monitor young people's online safety.
"I'm not surprised," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, in an e-mail to ABC News. He said a growing number of children are enticed to send sexually explicit pictures of themselves online -- and they're often threatened afterward.
"For example," he wrote, "a kid takes a risque photo of himself or herself in response to a request from an assumed girlfriend or boyfriend. The recipient of the photo then uses the photo to extort the child into taking more; i.e., 'if you don't do what I say, I will send this photo to your school, to your friends, to your parents, disseminate it on the Internet.' A stunning number of these kids do what they are asked, and don't tell anybody."
Cyberbullying Takes New Turn
The reason is sad and simple: "They're ashamed," said Bill Belsey, a Canadian teacher who founded Bullying.org, a Web site that tells victims how they can protect themselves. "They ask, 'What did I do?' They need to understand that they really haven't done anything wrong."
Facebook, which police said had two hacked accounts, said it can't comment on an open investigation, but it takes such cases seriously. "We will take action against users who cyberbully, including disabling their account," said Facebook's Barry Schnitt.
How did the young man in Oregon manage to hijack his victims' online pages? According to police, he claimed he knew them well enough to guess at likely passwords they used. And once he succeeded, it was simple enough to log on, posing as them, and change the passwords to something else.
"In the past, if someone was bullying you, at least you had some respite -- you could physically get away," Belsey said. "Now there's no relief. Parents may say, 'Oh, just turn the computer off,' but I call today's kids the always-on generation. They can't get away from it."
What's more, said Belsey, teachers get little training or advice on how to combat bullying, widespread as it is. And parents feel overwhelmed, intrusive or uncool if they check on their children's online lives.
The National Crime Prevention Council says young people easily forget that their actions online leave "an electronic fingerprint that can affect college admissions, employment, and their reputations with family and friends."
"Online relationships should be based on respect, and not just sharing sexual images of each other," said the council's Joselle Shea.
"Fortunately, this kid was identified, and his 'prank' interrupted fairly quickly," said Ernie Allen. "It is a little scary to think of what this kid might have been doing if this behavior had not been identified."