An Indiana man who prosecutors fear may have coerced hundreds of teenage boys into performing sexual acts for him over the Internet and a California teacher accused of exchanging nude photos with girls as young as 13 used the same website to meet their victims, officials and court documents say.
The website, omegle.com, offers users random, anonymous one-on-one chats with strangers. The home page warns users not to act "inappropriately" though it acknowledges that others may. The website says it is not for use by children under 13 and individuals under age 18 should not use it without a parent or guardian's permission.
"We're certainly familiar with the site, yes," said John Shehan, program manager for the CyberTipline at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which takes tips about alleged child exploitation and passes them on to law enforcement. "We have received several hundred cyber tips related to this site, specifically."
Federal prosecutors in Indiana allege in court documents that Richard Leon Finkbiner, 39, used the website to contact a 14-year-old Michigan boy and another in Maryland, whom he then secretly recorded performing sexual acts during video chats. He allegedly threatened to post those videos on gay porn sites unless they made more videos for his private use. Both boys initially went along with Finkbiner's demands and delayed telling their relatives or guardians, prosecutors said.
When investigators first examined the Brazil man's computer, they found "at least several hundred minor victims in thousands of video files," Zach Myers, an assistant U.S. attorney on the case, said Tuesday.
Finkbiner had a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday in federal court in Terre Haute on the charges pertaining to the two boys _ two felony counts of sexual exploitation of a child.
Court documents filed in federal court in Los Angeles say a former San Bernardino middle school teacher also used omegle.com to meet four underage girls, including a 13-year-old New Jersey girl, with whom he exchanged sexually explicit photos via cellphone. Eugene Ballantyne, 29, pleaded not guilty April 2 to charges including the sexual exploitation of a minor and production of child pornography.
Ballantyne faces life in prison if convicted of all charges. He remains in federal custody awaiting his May 1 trial. His attorney, Stephen Demik, didn't immediately respond to a phone message Tuesday seeking comment about his client's case.
Myers said he wasn't aware of any similar cases where it was "publicly alleged" that the website was used to pick up children, but he said that such anonymous chat sites can leave users vulnerable.
"In this situation, a child or adult simply doesn't know who's on the other end of that communication and what they might be doing," Myers said.
It wasn't immediately clear whether any of the alleged victims initially had adult permission to use omegle, which warns users to use the site "at your own peril." The Associated Press was unable to locate a phone number for the site's 19-year-old founder, Leif K-Brooks, whose address is variously listed as Brattleboro, Vt., or Portland, Ore., and he did not respond to a request for an interview set to him via Twitter.
In a 2010 interview on About.com, K-Brooks said he was "taking every possible step to protect Omegle's users, including working with law enforcement agencies," but he urged parents to supervise their children's Internet use.
"Omegle isn't for young children," he said then. "I would strongly advise parents to inspect any website before allowing their children to use it."
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