January 20, 2019

A Case of ‘Catfishing,’ Blackmail and Sexual Abuse Rattles Norway


LONDON — The 26-year-old man pretended to be a teenage girl to meet boys and young men on online chat forums.

He called himself “Sandra” or “Henriette,” met boys from Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and asked them to send explicit images and videos, prosecutors say.

When they complied, he threatened to publish the footage on YouTube if they did not keep the images coming. He talked a few into meeting in person. Then, officials said, he raped some of them.

The Norwegian man — identified only as Henrik, a soccer referee — was charged last Friday with sexually abusing more than 300 boys in three countries beginning in 2011. The authorities found more than 16,000 explicit films of victims on the suspect’s computer.

“The problem is the internet,” she said. “It’s possible to reach so many victims through the internet.”

While the issue is not unique to Norway, the country has grappled with high-profile cases of sexual abuse, like the one in Tysfjord, where officials identified more than 150 victims. In another so-called catfishing case in 2017, a 27-year- old man was convicted of online abuse in a case involving 53 girls, ages 12 to 17, whom he met via chat apps. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

According to the Norwegian Center for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies, 21 percent of Norwegian women and 8 percent of Norwegian men say they were sexually abused before the age of 18.

Thor Steinhovden, an adviser at the Norwegian think tank Agenda, says the catfishing case may be the largest incidence of online sexual abuse in Norwegian history.

“We’ve definitely had similar, online-related molestation cases,” Mr. Steinhovden said in a phone interview on Friday. “These cases have increased quite a bit in the last five to six years,” he added.

Under Norwegian criminal law, sexual abuse over the internet is legally the same as physical sexual abuse, and the number of online sexual offenses is increasing as more young people get access to smartphones and the web, according to the authorities. Reports to the police of criminal sexual acts against children under 16 rose to 833 from 227 between 2004 and 2017, according to the Norwegian Statistical Bureau.

Like the prosecutor, Mr. Steinhovden suggested that Norway’s increasing cybersophistication had opened a gateway to more such cases.

“Norway has one of the highest digital competencies in the world — 87 percent of children aged 9 to 11 have access to smartphones, and it makes them more vulnerable,” Mr. Steinhovden said. The rate increases to 97 percent for children 12 to 14 years old, according to a report by the Norwegian Media Authority.

“We’re just catching up with the side effects,” he said, “and the debate about whether we should regulate our use, and how we should do it, is just getting started.”

In the latest case of catfishing — in which someone adopts a phony online personality to lure others — only two victims initially came forward, despite hundreds of them being identified in videos and via chat logs. One boy spoke to his parents about it, the authorities said, and the mother of another boy figured it out and alerted officials.

Those two complaints spurred an investigation in 2016, which concluded in June. Indictments were handed up this month.

The reluctance of victims to step forward further complicated the case; some have declined to talk to investigators even after police identified hundreds of victims, Ms. Hansson Bull said.

“I think maybe it’s the shame; they’re trying to minimize the case, trying not to tell,” she noted.

Until the police approached them, some victims had not realized they were part of a scam.

“Some victims didn’t even know they were abused, even when they were threatened,” Ms. Hansson Bull said, as the suspect was still pretending to be a girl.

The online abuse started in 2011, but most of the offenses in the indictment were committed from 2014 to 2016, according to Ms. Hansson Bull. During that period, 460 boys and young men, ages 9 to 18, were abused, she said, but only 300 — “the most severe cases” — were included in the indictment.

The offender used messaging applications like Kik and LINE to contact victims. He persuaded the boys to send him sexually explicit images and videos.

In some cases, boys were promised corresponding images from Sandra or Henriette. In others, they were threatened with public humiliation and release of the sensitive material online to get them to send him more. One boy sent Henrik 91 explicit videos, according to the indictment.

He also met about 20 boys in person, pretending to be a friend of his female alias, Ms. Hansson Bull said.

Besides sexual assault, the defendant is accused of paying some of the boys for sexual acts, which took place in his home in Fetsund, a riverside town less than 18 miles east of Oslo, Norway’s capital, and in other places nearby.

Some victims have asked for compensation for the abuse and the deception from the courts; the exact amount will depend on the claims victims put forward, according Ms. Hansson Bull.

The suspect, in custody since 2016, faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. But if he is deemed to be a threat to society, he may be detained for life, said Ms. Hansson Bull.

Gunhild Laerum, one of his lawyers, could not be reached for comment. But she told Varingen, a local daily newspaper, “He had an addiction to this online world.”

“He lived a forbidden life online,” she said, adding, “In retrospect, he’s glad he was caught,” or he would not have been able to stop otherwise.

She said the defendant wished to apologize to his victims.

Henrik Pryser Libell contributed reporting from Oslo, Norway.



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