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To catch a YouTube predator
Pedophiles can exploit a loophole in YouTube’s system to actively approach young teens for explicit acts.
On Jan. 14, a 12-year-old girl named Emily went onto her YouTube channel and revealed the details behind a frightening situation.
A week before, Emily had received a message from a YouTube user named Ikon Modeling who claimed the agency would like to extend to her a tryout. They said that she was beautiful, that she looked gorgeous in her videos. Then they asked her to join an upcoming Skype video conference in which the person behind Ikon Modeling would use a different name. And in order to be a model, the person behind Ikon Modeling told Emily, she had to go into the Skype conference alone. Her parents could not attend.
The Skype invitation wasn’t the first red flag for Emily, she’d later concede in her video, “Need Help like ASAP!! Is Ikon Modeling a Scam?” She also found it peculiar that the individual would contact her just minutes after she’d posted the only video she’d ever put up in her life: a rough, homemade tutorial explaining how to do the splits. In it, she’s smiling and wearing tight clothing. She’s young and tan, and her dark hair’s done up in a Carolina blue ribbon. She stretches her legs. She brings them back together. She opens them again, and then she goes all the way down.
Emily had always wanted to be a model, so she accepted Ikon Modeling’s contact request on Skype. The only caveat was that she chose to keep her webcam off. Instead, she chatted through text with a man named William whose profile picture showed that he was white and kept his dark hair buzzed short against his head. He looked young. In the photo he wore a dark, collared, short-sleeve shirt. His location was listed as New York City. The way that Emily remembers it, “He started posting a whole bunch of websites to prove that he was real.”
“I saw the website and then I think I saw a video of the president of Ikon Modeling,” she added. “I saw a whole bunch of videos and a whole bunch of models. They were all adults, and I thought that was strange. I’m only 12, so I still count as a kid. I’m like a pre-teen.”
Emily remained hesitant but the man who identified himself as William continued on. He said that he was a recruiter with the modeling agency but that he wasn’t in the agency’s office at the time; he couldn’t officially vet her candidacy until he was.
Instead, he asked her for three things: her age, her experience as a model, and when he learned that she’d had none, a reason for her failures. To the last question, Emily responded by saying that she’s been trying to sign up, but agencies wouldn’t accept her age.
“He started saying, ‘Oh, that’s strange,'” Emily recounted. Then he asked for her webcam.
Emily reminded William that she’d have to wait until her parents got home. William grew testy. He started to challenge her authority, saying that she’d be 13 soon and that she should be allowed to make her own decisions.
“If your parents don’t believe in you and trust you to make the right decisions, then I guess you can’t make the right decisions to be a model,” Emily recalled him saying.
The conversation broke off. Shortly after, Emily received a message from another girl, one who’d also heard from Ikon Modeling.
“I saw the video,” Emily said, referring to the girl’s confessional. “They did the same thing to her.”
Emily was smart enough to not to go too far with the user claiming to represent Ikon Modeling, so it’s not entirely clear what his ultimate intentions were. However, it’s a common enough approach in cases of online pedophilia, which occur with startling regularity. According to a study performed by the Crimes Against Children research center at the University of New Hampshire, one out of every seven children will be solicited for sexual activities online at some point during his or her teenage development.
What’s worse is that those creeps can crawl around every corner of nearly every online community with relative ease. Since massive social networks like Facebook and Twitter don’t have the bandwidth to actively monitor their channels, predators are able to sign up, operate, and change usernames with just a few clicks and almost no oversight. For example, a man, posing as a kid named Rob Williams, did whatever he could to solicit teens for private videos. At least nine different accounts have been suspended in his honor. He’s been Rob the Canadian Prince, Iluvbacon96, Baconprince95, Iamyourprinceagain, and Iamyourprincereborn.
Social news site Reddit shut down a forum devoted to sexualized images of minors, the subreddit r/jailbait, in October 2011, but it’s survived by r/legalteens, which posts pictures of girls who are 18, though a few photos of underaged teens purportedly fall through the cracks. Facebook bars convicted sex offenders from enrollment in its terms of service, but nothing’s stopping them from trying. And on Twitter, more than 100 accounts belonging to alleged pedophiles were shut down in a sting operation by worldwide hacktivist collective Anonymous in June.
Predators are everywhere. The hard part is trying to catch ’em.
Take the case of Jimmy Lee Cook, for instance. Two years ago, when Cook was 40, he pretended in writing to be an underage male on YouTube in an effort to solicit sexually explicit videos from an 11-year-old who lived in Indiana. Authorities received a tip and arrested Cook in his Virginia home (courts sentenced him to 160 months in prison for possession of child pornography), but not before the damage had been done. According to those familiar who followed these stories, police didn’t discover Cook for three years.
Just last week, Steven Allabaugh, a 21-year-old Pennsylvanian man, was arrested for using Facebook to lure a 14-year-old to his house,
There’s an even scarier and seedier underbelly to the Internet exposed by the tragic Amanda Todd saga that unfolded at the end of last year. The 15-year-old Canadian girl commited suicide after years of online sexual harassment at the alleged hands of Dakota “Kody” Maxson. Todd became a target after she briefly flashed a webcam in a chatroom in 2010, exposing herself to a pedophilic “capper” community that would coerce kids into stripping naked and then record—or snap screenshots of—their every move. The cappers would then use that footage as blackmail to secure their victims’ silence and further explicit acts, going so far as to create a YouTube show, The Daily Capper, to brag about the exploits.
Those still in doubt about the dangers lurking online need to look no further than MSNBC’s To Catch a Predator. The show, which ran for three years and made Chris Hansen a household name, was dedicated to the outing and eventual arrest of child predators, and it worked quite well. Over three years, To Catch a Predator was involved in the arrest of 12 pedophiles.
The man who trolls YouTube for young girls under the guise of Ikon Modeling has done so since at least Oct. 29, 2012, when he first laid eyes on a girl from South Carolina who’d been posting videos on her sister’s YouTube account.
“Our agency would like to hire you as a model,” he wrote to the girl. “Do you have a Skype to prove that you are the gorgeous girl in the videos? We can give you our website/proof first, just ask.”
The girl got so excited that she posted a video diary detailing the initial exchange that evening. Two days later, after she’d had the chance to talk it over with her mother, she posted another clip, one that told Ikon that she couldn’t sign up for an account. “My computer won’t let me email,” she said. “I’ve asked my mom to show me, but she doesn’t know.”
A string of similar videos followed. On Nov. 3, an 11-year-old named Faith angrily took to her YouTube channel just one day after posting a video that featured her conspicuously moving around in the dark in tight clothing.
“Don’t ever listen to them,” she pleaded in a video titled “I Hate Icon Modeling” [sic]. “They’re freaking scammers.” She said that Ikon tried to hold a video conference with her on Skype but balked when she wanted to get her parents involved.
Another preteen posted to her YouTube channel that same day. This time, the girl sniffed Ikon out.
“A real modeling agency doesn’t make a YouTube account,” she said. “They also email people. They don’t ask to video chat you.”
That girl said that she’d modeled before and wanted to get into acting. She’s made tons of videos for her YouTube channel before, sometimes three or four in a day. Just prior to making the “Ikon Modeling?” video on Nov. 3, she’d posted videos of herself and her friends dancing in her bedroom in tank tops and tight pants.
A 10-year-old named Hailey followed one day later to say that Ikon asked her if she wanted to be a model.
“They want to ooVoo me,” she said, referring to the moderately used video chat platform. “Dude, I’m 10. I’m not going to ooVoo a stranger. I’m not going near you. Just leave me alone, please.”
Siara followed, then Serenity, then Leah B. On Jan. 3, an anonymous community member who goes by anEthicalSociety took to Google’s product forums to point out a glaring weakness in YouTube’s governing system.
“Child predators cannot be reported if they avoid posting videos or public comments because the Child Endangerment report cannot be submitted without citing such content,” anEthicalSociety wrote. “This loophole needs to be fixed! Child predators can work by private messages alone.”
AnEthicalSociety has a point. The way the system sets up, YouTube’s current Safety and Abuse reporting process requires that a reporter provide an example of abuse in a public comment or posted video. Third-party testimonials won’t work. If you try to draft a narrative within the notes, the reporting system won’t let you. Users cannot submit a report without citing an example from one of the aforementioned categories. (YouTube did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment. Skype, for what it’s worth, wrote back that it “takes customers’ privacy very seriously” and offers “a built-in privacy feature that can restrict who is able and who is not able to contact you.” That’s good news for victims of repeat stalkers, but Ikon Modeling has yet to strike the same girl twice.)
Ikon Modeling’s YouTube channel is empty: The man behind it has neither uploaded any videos nor submitted any comments. All of the communications he had with the girls had been in private, effectively out of Google’s reach. Despite more than eight testimonials alluding to this guy’s tricks, Ikon Modeling has operated without a trace.
The woman behind the real Ikon Modeling couldn’t believe it when she found out.
“You have no idea how many people I’ve had to speak with about this,” Cynthia Saldana told me when I reached her on the telephone. She explained that her agency would never turn to YouTube to scout out new talent. In fact, Saldana largely only takes incoming calls. If you want to model, the agency requires a “professional portfolio or composite cards,” its website clearly states.
“You should send at least one clear head shot and one clear body shot,” the website adds. “Your head shot should clearly show your entire face, and your body shot should give us a good idea of your build and body type …. Please DO NOT send any nude photographs.”
Saldana wouldn’t speak to me further after learning that I planned to write a story on the subject, but her website bears witness to the issue at hand. Below the homepage banner that cycles through photos of undeniably adult-aged models, a block of red lettering explains: “Ikon NY does not scout or contact people over the Internet, not on YouTube or any other site.
“The only way we would contact you about an open-call meeting is if you had submitted your photos directly to our email address first. Please do not be fooled by anyone contacting you who says they work for Ikon. They are absolutely not part of this company!”
So who exactly is this person purporting to be Ikon Modeling? YouTube’s account creation system makes it extremely difficult to tell.
There’s no name or alternative information to glean from it, other than the username and date joined—Oct. 23, 2012, six days before he contacted the girl in South Carolina—and a link to the user’s Google+ account that leads to a 404 error message.
But it’s on that South Carolina girl’s video that another preteen named Kenzie reports to have had a conversation on Skype with the man who claimed to be from Ikon Modeling, someone who held a username on Skype of thezigmeister88.
I sent a contact request to thezigmeister88 and was able to pull up a brief sampling of his profile information in return. He’s the same person described at the top of this story: white, short-haired, and dressed in a dark collared short-sleeve. He lists his birthday as Nov. 11, 1987—making him 25. At the top of his profile, his name reads “William Something.”
Google searches for “thezigmeister88” only yield results from the aforementioned YouTube thread, which lists “thezigmeister88” as the Skype account in question. However, a searches for similar names reveal an outdated Myspace page owned by a guy who looks strikingly similar to thezigmeister88. What’s more, the profile lists his name as Will and contains the same photo that thezigmeister88 uses on his Skype profile.
A PeekYou entry a few search results down identifies the person in the Myspace profile as a 25-year-old male in Florida.
Looking at other accounts that appear to be held by the same person, William is not a treacherous online predator.
On Facebook, he’s a loving brother and son who poses for pictures with his grandmother and wrestles with his sister. He goes camping with his family, and went sailing on a school trip with his friends around San Francisco and nearby Monterey.
He’s written poems about the smell of change and the girls he couldn’t get. In typical young-20s fashion, he once assembled a photo gallery to celebrate the French actress Audrey Tautou. He studied entomology—insects—and he hasn’t reported to have moved from the Florida area since.
He even has a Pinterest page, listed under a variation of the same username. The profile pictures line up, and the Facebook account is connected. On it are two boards: one for the childhood toys that bring back good memories and another for his favorite places.
That same handle leads to darker secrets. Google that one and you’ll find links to profiles that direct to shadier websites: CamFuze, a webcam and chat site whose front page features a whole mess of guys holding tightly to their penises, and a recently deleted account on Motherless, an amateur shockporn site whose child-porn moderation is notoriously insufficient. He’s active on BlackPlanet, a site that touts itself as “the largest black community online,” and he holds a presence on Filipina Online, a low-tech Filipino dating site. He has one friend on StickAm, a seedy live-broadcasting site he joined in 2010. The woman’s username is DickInMyButt, and she loves to show her fans her breasts.
On Jan. 10, a 20-year-old named Mandy Harter logged onto her Skype profile and started chatting with William about the opportunities that could come as a result of working with him at Ikon Modeling.
He fed her the lines that Emily had reported and the ones that the other girls had said that he delivers, writing that he’d offer her Ikon’s “licensed websites and video” in an effort to convince her that he’s real. After chatting about career aspirations, he went in for the kill.
“Do you have a webcam to prove that you are the gorgeous person in your pics/video from explore talent and to see if you are qualified when standing?” he asked. She said that she did but that she was wearing pajamas. William told her pajamas wouldn’t be a problem “unless you absolutely hate being seen in them or they aren’t appropriate.” Three minutes later, she turned on her camera.
Shortly after admiring Mandy and complimenting her “skintone/complexion and full lips” and “great tummy and figure,” William laid out the full details of the scheme.
“You can make up to $3,000 depending on how well you try/do during the audition, and you can decide to join after or quit if you don’t want a modeling career.
“We express mail the money, flown to your nearest airport and posted to the address you decide… [A]fter finishing, the notes I take go to my boss and he decides if you passed… [I]f you decide to join after auditioning, we send representatives to rent a studio/warehouse closest to your location to start your portfolio.
“Then we present your portfolio to other agencies/magazines and they offer jobs for you to choose from, so whatever clothes you want to model you can choose those jobs.
“If you decide to have pics taken in the audition, we can get them signed by a celeb like Justin Bieber, Taylor Lautner, Channing Tatum, Zac Efron, Chris Brown, Drake, etc.
“Then if your pics impress him enough, he will want to come meet or date you.”
The two chatted a little more about nude photography and whether Mandy had other talents. When he learned that she was 20, he told her that she could try “any type of modeling you have the confidence for,” then equated nude modeling to Playboy. The two chatted for an hour.
William told Mandy he had to leave 10 minutes after she told him that she’d found Ikon’s website.
No arrests have been made, but the chase for William is on.
AnEthicalSociety and others have spent the past two months passing their exploits to CyberTips, a national tipline for missing and exploited children; anEthicalSociety told me he received a call from Tallahassee’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit Friday, Jan. 18.
On Jan. 16 and again on Jan. 24, I fielded calls from a member of the Homeland Security Investigations team in Tallahassee. The man was looking for information on an Internet personality known as TheZigmeister. I offered what I had, and he told me he’d move swiftly.
William has since adjusted his Skype profile to include less information than it had in prior days. He’s simply thezigmeister 88 at this point—all references to his first name have been removed.
On Jan. 27, anEthicalSociety wrote to inform me that William’s Ikon Modeling channel was down. “This channel was closed and is no longer available,” the page read. Clicking the link redirected to a 404. Two days later, I clicked on the link to discover that YouTube had provided some sort of an explanation. “The account has been terminated,” the page read, “due to multiple or severe violations of our Community Guidelines.”
Back on Skype, his picture has been replaced by a generic white silhouette on a blue background. Instead of purporting to be from New York, he’s listed as living in the United States. His birthday’s been erased.
He’s trying to vanish without a trace.
Ed. note: This story was originally scheduled to run Jan. 25. Publication was suspended in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. It has been updated to clarify ownership of the Ikon Modeling YouTube account and clarify some background information.
Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III
Chase Hoffberger reported on YouTube, web culture, and crime for the Daily Dot until 2013, when he joined the Austin Chronicle. Until late 2018, he served as that paper’s news editor and reported on criminal justice and politics.