Sextortion, cyber-crimes and cyberstalking are on the rise

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Text messages began arriving in K.C.‘s cellphone, some with nude photos of the high school senior, on a Friday the 13th three years ago.

Hiding behind false phone numbers and personas, a mystery tormentor threatened to post the images on Twitter. Her Culpeper-area friends were contacted, demands were made for more photos, nude images were sent to her parents, and threats were made to send them to her church.

K.C.‘s sunny senior year was suddenly clouded with menace. Police escorted her to her prom and she approached her commencement ceremony with trepidation. “He made threats that he would put my photos on the big screen at graduation as I walked across the stage,” she said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“I was embarrassed. I was really ashamed. It wasn’t something I was proud of because I very much thought that it was all my fault and I was the only one to blame for this,” said K.C., who was age 18 at the time. “It was definitely not the way I imagined my senior year going.”

With the help of her family, friends, counselors, authorities and even a federal judge, K.C. now knows that none of it was her fault. The U.S. attorney’s office is helping her to help others who have found themselves in the cross hairs of a cyber criminal.

Last year, while the public was focused on COVID-19, cyber criminals used phishing, spoofing, extortion, and various types of Internet-enabled fraud to target the most vulnerable in our society at a record-breaking rate, according to the FBI’s 2020 Internet Crime Report.

Figures on cases such as K.C.‘s were not available. But in general, the number of complaints received by the FBI’s Internet Complaint Center in 2020 rose 69%, to almost 800,000.

And in recent years, the FBI said, there has been “a huge increase in the number of cases involving children and teens being threatened and coerced by adults into sending explicit images online — a crime called sextortion.”

Juveniles deserve to feel safe at all times, said, Raj Parekh, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. He said the first step in fighting back is to arm the public with information on how to prevent these crimes from happening.

“We must work together to empower our children to speak up immediately when something does not look right,” he said. “Please spread the word and tell your loved ones and others to look out for these online predators.”

It is important to immediately report such suspected crimes, he said.

“It is equally important that we all protect and support victims – as the case proceeds through the justice system and after – so that they receive the healing and services that they need to rebuild their lives,” Parekh said.

K.C. agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that only her initials be used. She is one of many young cyberstalking victims who, while they may not be harmed or assaulted physically, suffer psychological harm.

Her digital assailant turned out to be a former boyfriend, Satyasurya Sahas Thumma, 25, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University versed in the Internet’s dark web. He is now serving a 6 1/2-year prison term at the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution.

Thumma stopped tormenting K.C. suddenly in 2018 — he had a new girlfriend.

When that new relationship ended, he turned his malicious attention on a new victim, using revenge porn, threats of violence and attempted sextortion in a scheme as cruel as it was complex and that put her and her family through a hell worse than K.C.’s.

When sentencing Thumma in 2019 for his attacks on the two young women, U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. said, “It was an ongoing and inescapable, 21st-century nightmare to these victims.”

K.C. said she met Thumma her senior year in high school through a dating app. She also knew him through friends. Although he was a student at VCU at the time, he had attended another high school in the Culpeper area.

“We started dating and hanging out and through the progression of our relationship I had sent him some nude photos,” she said. “Kind of really didn’t think anything of it.”

“You always hear people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t do that type of thing,’ but you never, really, I guess, think of the consequences.”

She broke up with him on April 9, 2018. “I was leaving for the summer after my senior year in high school, I was leaving for a couple of months and I just felt like I was at a place in my life where I didn’t really need to be dating someone, feel tied down.”

“Pretty much immediately after I broke things off with him I started getting texts saying that he was these other people,” recalled K.C. The first texts arrived on April 13.

“He threatened to send my photos to my parents. He threatened to send them to my dad’s place of employment and to my pastor at church,” K.C. said. “And all the while he was pretending to be someone else with all these different numbers coming in.”

Someone created a Snapchat account that promised nude photos of K.C. and began sending friend requests to K.C.‘s Snapchat contacts. Her friends began calling asking what it was all about. She explained and asked them not to accept the requests.

Her anxiety grew and K.C. became nauseous. She asked Thumma if he was responsible. He denied having anything to do with it. He also claimed he was facing possible death in a serious upcoming operation to remove a brain tumor.

The stress became so great she could no longer keep things to herself. K.C. told her mother and they reported it to the Culpeper police on April 17. The next day, while they were meeting with police investigators, K.C. was receiving texts and Snapchat messages from Thumma.

Thumma said that he would die or survive without her in the brain operation. He told K.C. that if he died, “He would watch her from above.”

She did not think Thumma would harm himself but told police he might. VCU officials did a welfare check on him and Culpeper police learned from Thumma’s parents that he did not have brain cancer.

On April 19, Thumma sent K.C.’s mother an anonymous text with nude photos of K.C. A subsequent anonymous text from a different number said that if the police were contacted the nude photos would be sent to their church.

K.C. said she grew up watching police and forensic science shows on television. “You think, oh, that will never happen to me. And then it does and it was really a shock,” she said. “This can literally happen to anybody.”

The anonymous online abuse stopped as suddenly as it started, but not the fear.

“I ended up cutting my hair off and dying it a different color and leaving for the summer. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going except for my immediate family.”

“I was scared. I felt like the police weren’t really doing anything ... it was very hard for me to grasp at first what was going on,” she said.

She kept it all to herself in the beginning, out of shame. “But then my friends and my family were there with me as I walked through this journey.”

A year later, in April 2019, K.C. discovered there was another victim when Thumma was charged by federal authorities in the cyberstalking of a minister’s daughter, the young woman he began seeing after K.C. broke off their relationship.

A friend sent her a news article about Thumma’s arrest. “She was like, ‘Hey, is this article about you?’”

K.C. said, “I knew nothing about it so I called the Culpeper police department right away and I spoke with the detective who had been helping me. She asked me if I would like to go ahead and press charges against him? And I said, ‘Absolutely, 100 percent.’”

In July 2019, Thumma pleaded guilty in federal court to charges stemming from his cyber attacks on both women.

K.C. is putting her life back together. She said, “It’s easier to talk about it now ... I’m more comfortable sharing it now.”

“It’s the psychological and the mental distress that it puts on your body that really took a toll on me,” said K.C. “I have a really hard time trusting people. But even worse than that, I had a really hard time trusting myself for a long time.”

She said she struggled with second-guessing herself and is working in counseling and therapy to learn to trust herself and to learn and establish her limits.

“I think it’s important for you to have those healthy boundaries that you set for yourself,” she said. That is probably the biggest thing she has been working on and that she struggled with.

Self-blame has also been an issue. “Had I not sent those photos this never would have happened. I have come to learn, regardless of whether or not I did do that, I think he still would have reacted the same way.”

K.C. and the other young woman attended Thumma’s sentencing hearing in Richmond in November 2019.

“The judge said a really nice thing. He said, ‘You girls – speaking to me and the other victim – you girls are not to blame for this. You are not responsible for somebody else’s course of action.’”

“That’s something that really has resonated with me because we really are, at the end of the day, we are only accountable for our own actions,” K.C. said.

“I know that I shouldn’t have sent him photos, but it was a done deal,” she said. “I couldn’t take it back and I needed to stop blaming myself because in no way, shape or form could I have predicted how he was going to react and take rejection, and I really did think for the longest time that it was my fault.

“It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault that he was mentally unwell and unstable ... I’m not responsible for that. It was a really hard thing for me to accept and learn. I was embarrassed by it. I didn’t want to tell people about what happened to me because I thought they would think poorly of me like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t have sent those photos in the first place.’”

She said that perhaps the most important thing she has learned is that, “People are a lot more understanding than what I would have thought. I don’t think anyone ever blamed me. It was a lot of self-blame.”

“My parents were super understanding,” she said.

K.C. said the victim/witness specialist and others with the U.S. attorney’s office in Richmond have been helpful. “They have opened opportunities for me to share my story with other people,” said K.C.

“It really has allowed me to take something horrible and unfortunate and very scary and real for me, and it’s allowed me to turn it into something positive,” she said.

K.C. recently spoke with an underage victim of a similar crime. “I got to share my story with her and answer questions for her,” she said.

“I got to essentially be a mentor to her as she is walking through her own journey ... that’s something that I think is really special and it makes my heart happy,” said K.C.

“I just told her, ‘It’s not your fault. It never is.’”