I was the detective on call when Tevan Tobler took his life. I’ve worked a lot of death investigations, including suicides, but Tevan’s case was different. He was 16-years-old, had good grades, was involved in school athletics, and had a good home life with a beautiful family. Tevan had no history of mental health problems, no substance abuse history (even his final toxicology report would turn up negative for all substances), and no prior suicidal tendencies. At the time, there were no known traumatic events to indicate a reason for suicide.
Like Tevan’s family, I was confused as to what could have driven Tevan to suicide. Knowing that a teenager’s cellphone is essentially their private journal, I asked the family if I could search Tevan’s phone for any clues. They agreed. While I was investigating the content of the phone, Tevan’s father contacted me to inform me that there had been a significant number of phone calls made to his son from various phone lines in the period before his death- even in the minutes just prior to his passing. Tevan had deleted a lot of the content on his phone, and piecing together the situation with recovered content was difficult. I did several forensic extractions on the phone and discovered that Tevan was being extorted, more specifically, he had been a victim of sextortion.
An unknown person was contacting Tevan from multiple phone lines connected to a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) line. The unknown suspect had a video of Tevan that he threatened to share with his friends and family if Tevan did not pay the blackmailer. The suspect claimed that due to the content of the video, if it became public, Tevan would be at risk of extreme fines and even incarceration. Tevan pleaded for him to delete the video. The suspect demanded the ransom be sent to him via Western Union, or else.
Tevan sent all the money he had.
But like many sextortion cases, the blackmail didn’t stop after payment was received. It continued, and it escalated. It got so bad that Tevan, a 16-year-old with his entire life ahead of him, decided suicide was the only way out.
Who had done this to Tevan, and why? As I dug deeper into this question, I served legal process on Yahoo, Snapchat, Western Union, and several other internet service providers and ultimately was able to trace the case to Africa. Because of the international nexus, I involved Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who, in coordination with the local embassy, was able to assist on the ground. The County Attorney’s office wanted to aggressively prosecute this case, and investigators were able to identify additional sextortion cases linked to this suspect, and had at least one other victim out of France that had also committed suicide as a result.
The case was gaining momentum when it suddenly came to a halt. The investigation had traced the source of the blackmail to a primarily poor, high-crime region of the Ivory Coast, but without a unique IP address, we couldn’t identify an exact location. Unfortunately, even if we had had an exact location, the case had met its end, for the United States has no extradition treaty with the Ivory Coast. The government there would not see this case as one of national interest- it’s hard to get them to even see terrorism as a national interest, let alone the death of a young teenager from Utah.
After details of the case were shared, I was contacted by dozens of victims nationally; adults and juveniles alike. Several told me how they were also victims of sextortion out of the Ivory Coast. Several of these cases had resulted in suicide, including a young police officer in Texas. With this new information, I began to discover more about how the suspects conduct their operation.
The extorter begins by using a profile picture of an attractive female to catch the victim’s attention. After accepting a friend request or engaging in conversation, the extorter begins working on gaining trust, progressing toward explicit conversation or exchanging explicit videos.
The extorter then moves to “live chatting”, except it’s not live. It’s a saved file of someone else performing in a sexy, intimate video. It looks real, and the victim is asked to engage in similar sexual acts on their webcam. Once the extorter has captured the explicit pictures or videos, they have what they want. The façade is dropped, and the real motives become apparent.
They now have all the means to extort their victims, and the blackmail begins. Pay, or they’ll share the video with your family and friends (who they’ve also located online). Pay, or they’ll report you have child sexual abuse material on your computer. Pay, or you’ll go to jail. Pay, or else.
It is relentless. They will not stop.
They will not stop, because this is their livelihood. They run the sextortion ring like a business, staffing employees on a payroll- even giving bonuses to people who extort the most! The operation is sophisticated. They conceal their identities with spoofed IP addresses and VOIP phone calls and messages. You can block the numbers of accounts they contact you with, but they will get new ones, and the harassment will continue.
There are thousands of victims in these operations, and they frustrate law enforcement around the globe. Personally, I desired nothing more than to find the people responsible for Tevan’s death and extradite them to the United States. I wanted to give his family justice, but that’s not a real possibility right now, and that is indescribably frustrating.
But awareness and education can shut their operation down! So, what do you need to know to help protect yourself from sextortion?
1. Don't engage with anyone on social media who you do not know offline. If you can’t verify that a request or message is from someone you personally know, ignore them or block them. Your friend/follower count does not matter, who you allow into your life does.
2. Never share intimate images or videos.
3. Please, talk to someone if you are a victim of sextortion. Reach out to someone you trust, report it to the authorities. If you don't find an agency or detective willing to help, contacting state and federal task forces for help. If you are a victim, our objective is to help you. Sextortion cases are not exclusive to international suspects; there are countless local cases and cases involving people you know as the perpetrator.
4. Do not delete the communications with the suspect or suspects. Retain all the data you can to help law enforcement investigate.
5. If you know someone who is being victimized, report it. You can even report anonymously online to CyberTipline.org.
6. Do not give in to the demands; do not even engage in conversation if they are trying to victimize you. After you make a report and the data is recovered by law enforcement, you might need to delete your social media accounts, emails, and change your phone number, but you will be fine; all of those are replaceable!
7. Share Tevan's story and others like it. You might save someone's life.