A 12-year-old New York City girl was terrorized by an online stalker who tried to extort naked pictures from her last year on Instagram, and incredibly, her family was unable to get the NYPD or Instagram to investigate the predator until News 4's I-Team got involved.
"I was just so frightened, I didn’t know what to do," Ella, now 13, told the I-Team of the moment she realized her friendly-looking follower was not who she thought.
The predator, using a profile picture of a young girl in a gymnastics pose, had already worked his way into Ella’s friend group on Instagram before Ella accepted their follow request, allowing the stranger into her private page.
"I thought it was a young girl who maybe knew me from somewhere. A friend of a friend. I thought it was safe," said Ella, who lives on the Upper West Side.
Ella chatted with her new online friend, who used cute emojis and made references to sixth grade, until things suddenly got scary. Implying the two knew people in common, the person sent Ella a picture of a penis and told her she would be sorry unless she sent a naked picture back.
"And at that point I realized they are not who they said they are," said Ella. "I had to block them and report them. I thought it was over."
But it wasn’t over. Instagram took down the user’s page, but a couple months later the predator resurfaced under a different name and Ella made the mistake of hitting accept. Instantly, the predator began threatening and intimidating Ella, using that crude first picture as a weapon.
"They said, 'You have this picture. To make it fair, you have to send one back,'" said Ella. "At first I didn’t exactly understand. I thought they wanted a picture of my face. So I kept sending pictures of my face and they said 'No. One without a shirt.'"
In direct messages reviewed by the I-Team, the predator threatened to send the police to Ella’s school unless she complied. The predator managed to convince Ella that she could be arrested for having received the graphic photo even though she never requested it and she deleted it immediately.
"He kept saying, 'End this, Ella. You can make this end.' And all I wanted was for this to end. I was like crying. I didn’t know what to do," she said.
How did this stranger suddenly manage to wield power over her?
"It felt really strange, because I knew that I didn’t do anything wrong," said Ella. "I deleted the conversation. I wasn’t in possession of any picture, but they were threatening so many things that I thought that I did something wrong. I was thinking, 'Well, maybe I am gonna have to send a naked picture.'"
Instead of crossing that line, Ella told her parents.
"Ella was so scared and panicked when she called me and sobbing hysterically," her mother told the I-Team. "She’s a child. She didn’t know that having (received) a naked picture of a man isn’t illegal and illicit.
"It feels illegal and illicit if you’re 12 to have a naked picture of a man on your phone" Ella's mother said. "And even though she deleted it, she was taught a million times that nothing really goes away when you delete it, so she was scared."
Supervisory special Agent James Tareco of the FBI, which launched an investigation into this case after being alerted by the I-Team, says this was a textbook move by a child predator fishing for child pornography on social media.
"He was recruiting her. It appeared that he was grooming her," he said.
Tareco says cases like Ella’s are very serious, on the rise, and that "FBI agents are online in an undercover capacity actively pursuing people who are producing child pornography and molesting our children.” But Tareco is concerned that not all cases make it to law enforcement in time to catch a potentially child-molesting predator.
When Ella’s mother, a former prosecutor who asked that her name be withheld, took steps to protect other girls from Ella’s predator, she got nowhere. Ella’s mother says she brought the creepy messages to the 24th precinct where she reviewed them with detectives.
While the detectives "felt terrible that this had happened," they told her, "'This is not something the NYPD deals with. We really can’t do anything. Not unless the person has actually tried to make contact in person in New York,'" according to Ella's mother.
"They just kept saying 'go to Instagram.'”
But going to Instagram proved equally frustrating. While Instagram had taken down both of the predator’s accounts after Ella reported the harassment, Ella’s mother wanted them to go further, by sharing the user's information with law enforcement or blocking their IP address so they could not continue using the same computer to create new profiles.
But when Ella’s mother filed complaint forms using Instagram’s online reporting system, she received this written response: "We won’t be able to take any further action on this report."
Instagram did not report Ella’s case to law enforcement and deleted the user’s information, making it more difficult for the NYPD and FBI to pursue their newly opened investigations.
An Instagram spokesperson tells the I-Team they are now investigating how they handled Ella’s disturbing case.
"We are sorry this happened. Instagram’s priority is to keep our community safe so we are investigating the specifics of this incident," the company said in a statement. "Instagram has zero tolerance for child exploitation on the platform."
Instagram acknowledges there were some recordkeeping quirks in their handling of Ella's case: when Ella's mother reported the predator, Instagram filed the case under "harassment" instead of the more serious category of "grooming/child exploitative images." And even though the predator's account was disabled by the account, internal records make it seem as if he deleted it himself, so the account history was deleted faster.
Top NYPD brass were not happy when they heard from the I-Team how Ella’s complaint had been rebuffed. They dispatched detectives this week to meet with Ella’s mother. The NYPD does have a unit that addresses about 400 cybercrimes against children each year, and NYPD Spokesman Peter Donald said, "We ask every police officer or detective to take a complaint of any crime. That should have happened in this case."
Donald said that when Ella's case came to the attention of NYPD Chief of Detectives Bob Boyce, Boyce immediately directed that the crime be investigated by the Detective Bureau Computer Crime Squad.
Federal law requires social media companies to report child exploitation cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which then passes the tips on to law enforcement -- who in turn subpoena the platform for the information.
After the I-Team's report, U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for information about companies' "obligation to report" predators.
According to sources familiar with Ella’s case, Instagram believes they may not have been legally required to report Ella’s case, since Ella never sent a naked picture to the predator.
James Tareco, a supervisory special agent with the Newark Division of the FBI, handles a growing number of cases like these and believes they should be reported to the FBI, adding that Instagram has a responsibility here.
Two senior congressional sources with knowledge of the law tell the I-Team they do believe Instagram would have been mandated to report Ella’s case under the section that covers child enticement.
A source familiar with Instagram’s practices tells the I-Team the company often blocks user devices and voluntarily reports bad actors to law enforcement, even when there’s no legal obligation. But the source adds that the company reports such cases only after bad actors have misbehaved with "multiple users."
To Ella’s mother, that does not sound like zero tolerance.
"I think there’s an absolute moral obligation, and this company has a lot of power. If this information is there, it should get to the right person to stop these people from doing what they’re doing."
Meanwhile, Ella hopes her decision to share her harrowing experience, will help raise awareness about the risks of predators like hers, who's still lurking online.
"I’m almost certain that this person still is out there. And if he isn’t, then other people are," she said. "There are so many girls that just don’t know what to do. They would send a naked picture. They might go meet up with someone and it could get really bad."
The NYPD urges anyone to call 911 in the case of an emergency or ongoing incident, or visit their local precinct.
The FBI asks families to report similar cases to them at tips.fbi.gov or 800-CALL-FBI. Predators can also be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at missingkids.com or 800-THE-LOTS.