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Catfishers are targeting teens in sextortion scams; how to spot the signs

Braden Markus was the target of a sextortion scam in Oct. 2021. Twenty-seven minutes after the online transaction began, the teen took his own life.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The day Braden Markus took his own life at the age of 15, no one could understand why.

It wasn't until nearly a year later that his family and friends learned the Olentangy teen was targeted in a catfishing and sextortion scam. 

Jennifer Markus posted her son’s story to Facebook as a warning for other parents and teens after she was able to gain access to Braden’s text messages.

"Some cyberbully friended Braden on Instagram, posing as a [high school] girl… well needless to say the predator was not a [high school] girl, and things went south within 30 minutes,” Jennifer wrote in her post.

Braden was pressured and conned into sending the catfisher a nude photo of himself. That's when the sextortion began.

The FBI calls sextortion the fastest-growing online crime in the country.  The victims are often threatened that their sexually explicit images will be publicly shared unless they pay, or perform sexual favors, to avoid it.

“These are bad people that are targeting our children and sometimes adults for money,” Delaware County Sheriff Russell Martin said while describing how catfishers work.  His office has now opened a criminal investigation given the sextortion Braden could not escape.

“They’re threatening to contact their parents. They're threatening to contact their peers, their friends, their classmates,” Sheriff Martin added.  “And we all know that young people are very impressionable. And the public humility of something like that, I think really drives the fear in them in those circumstances.” 

The fear for Braden was evident. CrimeTracker 10 obtained the communication between Braden and the catfisher who relentlessly pushed him for money.

Catfisher:  "If you cut the cam or you disconnect... I send it to your friends, your parents, your relatives... is that what you want?"

Braden: “Please don't. I'll do anything."

Catfisher: “You want me to start now posted this nude video of you on every porn site in the world?”

Braden:  "I'm killing myself, please don't." 

The back-and-forth between Braden and the catfisher intensified with him pleading to be spared. Sheriff Martin described the catfisher’s motive and methodology as “evil.”

“They’re persistent and they just won’t let up once they get their teeth into somebody who’s vulnerable,” Martin said.

The catfisher demanded $1,800 but Braden said he was broke, saying “I’m begging you.”  At least five times, Braden referenced he would take his own life. The catfisher ignored him every time.

Catfisher:  “Now if you want me to delete this beautiful nude video of you, then you have the right to do whatever I ask of you because if you care about your life and if you really want your video to be completely deleted you have the right to do all I ask you?”

The messages between Braden and the catfisher on the morning of October 17, 2021 lasted for 27 minutes. Soon after the conversation stopped, Braden was dead. 

His friends say they are furious knowing how so much could unravel so quickly. 

“The fact that somebody just woke up one day and said – I’m going to choose him,” 16-year-old Tyler Moreland said with sadness. “It’s just not something you’d see every day and knowing it happened to one of our closest friends, it just makes me mad.”

Braden’s friends say since learning of the circumstances before his death, they are all now much more careful about accepting friend requests from strangers no matter how tempting the invite might seem. 

They say the lesson to learn is to know exactly who is truly on the other side of that friend request.

Sheriff Martin hopes teens learn an even bigger lesson: anything can be overcome.

“We want to make sure that our young people know...if they've made a mistake, and they're being exploited, they need to trust their family or they need to trust an adult and have some hope that they'll put this behind them and they can work through this,” Sheriff Martin said.  “It may never come out. Or it may be minimal once you move on.”

Braden’s mom said she hopes her Facebook post will get parents to talk to their children about online cybercrimes. She said she knows her son is not the first and will not be the last target of a catfisher. 

Several people commented on her post about similar situations that happened with their children.

Visit the Braden Markus Memorial Page and to stay up to date on how his family and friends continue to honor his memory.

Preventing catfishing and sextortion scams

Authorities say there are four steps parents should take to hopefully prevent a catfisher from infiltrating their lives:

  1. Have a conversation with your kids. Communicate with them about the dangers of online crimes. 
  2. Get their passwords. It is not an invasion of privacy when it comes to your child’s safety. 
  3. Understand the apps. Many icons might be cover-ups for private chat rooms. 
  4. Go through your child’s friends list. Ask about each person so you are more familiar.

Additional resources:

Mental health resources

If you or someone you know is in a crisis or having thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. The lifeline can also be reached at its former number 1-800-273-8255 or online at 988lifeline.org. You can also text HELLO to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. A comprehensive list of suicide prevention resources can be found on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) website.

Olentangy Local School District statement provided to 10TV:

“The Olentangy High School and greater Olentangy community were deeply saddened by the passing of Braden Markus last year. We are hopeful that this story, along with the work of law enforcement, will educate parents and students regarding online safety precautions and prevent children from being the targets of online predators.”

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