Students, Beware of “Breast Perception Studies”

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Here is a creepy thing: A 23-year-old internal technology resident who was recruited out of UT-Dallas by Google was arrested by the FBI late last week after they uncovered a “catfish”-style scheme he allegedly created to extort nude photos out of at least one of his former classmates. 

The details on the allegations are pretty gross. According to documents obtained by the Smoking Gun, the scheme worked like this: The man posed as a researcher who was conducting a “breast perception study.” He emailed women who were asked “to submit nude photographs of their breasts in order to be considered for participation in the study.” Those who qualified would be paid $4,500. The purported project—which solicited the photos from the email address “[email protected]”—claimed to study “the public’s perception of different breast types.”

The emails were persistent, according to the court filing. The alleged victim had signed up through the UTD website in May 2013 to participate in various research studies that paid volunteers for their time, and the catfisher began sending emails in early June, offering $4,500 for photos because she was selected by an algorithm that identified her as a good potential match. Later that month, the supposed payment was upped to $6,000, and by December, “because of the need to finish the study,” the offer went up to $8,500 for four photographs. At that point, she delivered the images. 

The following week consisted of additional emails from the same email address, requesting that some of the photos be retaken and resubmitted. Then, a month later, a different email address sent her the following request for explicit images: 

“Hi [name redecated]. Hope you’re having a good Sunday! I’ve stumbled across some pictures of you. The type that I would hate for anybody else to see, and I can make sure that nobody else does. However, I’m gonna need you to help me fill out the set. Could you help me? Here’s what I need: Reply to this email with the following
1 in-focus, high-resolution photo of your feet
1 in-focus, high-resolution photo of your ass
1 in-focus, high resolution fully-body nude photo of you (omit face if desired)
1 in-focus, high-resolution photo of your pussy, preferably spread
1 in-focus, high-resolution photo of your pussy, with something inserted (finger ok)
1 video, at least one minute long, of you masturbating
Reply before midnight your time acknowledging that you received this and, at the very least, send a low res version of one of the above. I expect the rest by Wed, midnight. I’ve attached a picture for reference. Wearing that necklace really hurt plausible deniability :) Again, if you send all of this, I swear to it that no photo or video will surface and you will not be contacted again. Thanks :)”

Over the next few days, she received a number of additional emails from the new address suggesting that some of the demands were negotiable, warning her not to go to the authorities, and claiming that the sender wouldn’t be the one leaking the images, but that they had “the skills to stop them from ever being found.”

Whatever skills the sender possessed, they were insufficient to keep police from tracking his emails and tracing the IP address from which they were sent, and obtaining a warrant to search the computer of the suspect, where they found several other, similar exchanges with other women. Finally, last month—shortly after another nude photo leak that included a number of celebrities—the alleged victim began receiving emails from the second account again warning her that, unless she sent at least one new photo, the images would go live on a revenge porn website. 

The indictment on charges of cyberstalking was filed a few weeks later in a federal court in Sherman, and the arrest was made earlier this month.

No one has been convicted of anything yet—the arrest only occurred a few days ago. But reactions to the incident reveal a lot of ugliness. In the comment sections at sites like ValleyWag and the Dallas Morning Newsreaders argued that the victim here is at least partly to blame for failing to recognize a scam when she sees one. But that rather misses the point: Even people who would like to make money from participating in research, or who are too trusting in the face of catfishers, even they are entitled to live free of the threat of extortion. 

There’s an element to how this case is being discussed that mirrors the ugliness at play in the crimes themselves. 

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