“Good Morning America” has a parenting alert about online sexploitation, where children and teens can be coerced or blackmailed into sending explicit pictures or videos to a predator.
For Bethany Burtlow and her mom Alana, the pain is still fresh.
“I’m watching my child just melt and break,” Alana, of Sacramento, California, told ABC News. “As a parent, you want to fix it. You can’t fix this.”
Bethany, 20, says she was a victim of sexual exploitation when she was a student at El Camino High School.
“I got a text that said, ‘I have some photos of you. If you don’t do what I say, you’re going to regret it,’” she explained.
For three years, Bethany says she received threatening text messages from an anonymous number. Scared, she sent pictures hoping the harassment would stop, but she says it didn’t.
“’Oh, send me this, oh send me that, you’re not doing it right,’” Bethany recalled of what her alleged predator would tell her. “’If you don’t do this you’re going to hate the consequences.’”
What Bethany describes is sextortion, and according to the FBI. It’s a growing Internet crime where victims, often children and teens, are coerced into providing sexually explicit images or videos that are then used as blackmail.
“The perpetrator is trying to normalize his or her behavior towards the victim,” Fred Lane, a cyber safety expert, said. “So suggesting that everybody sends nudes and therefore it’s okay for the victim to do so, and that’s a process that can take place over weeks, months and even years in some instances.”
Bethany stopped sending photos and then she says the unthinkable happened. She says the explicit photos were mailed to her family and friends, and even posted on X-rated websites.
“I was in nominations for homecoming queen and I had friends in choir, and once everything went out, I had no friends,” she said.
Police say Bethany was actually tormented by a fellow student at her high school. The suspect, Chris Hirtzel, is now in jail and facing six felonies including distribution of child pornography. Hirtzel has not yet entered a plea.
“When a parent allows a child to go online unsupervised, it’s basically dropping their child off on one of the most dangerous corners in the city,” Angel M. Melendez, a special agent in charge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Homeland Security Investigations, explained.
Bethany encourages others experiencing online threats to speak out.
“Tell your parents,” she said. “They’re not going to be mad at you. They’ll want to help. Whatever you do, don’t send those pictures because they can come back and haunt you.”
Callahan Walsh, from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, has three tips for parents if their child is being harassed online: Be proactive, call the center’s cyber tip line which can be located at missingkids.org/cybertipline, and also, get authorities involved.