One by one, the young women came to the Kenmore police with disturbing tales of a stranger sending them messages, some by text, some through Facebook and Twitter.
His demands were clear: Communicate with me or I’ll send nude pictures of you to your friends and family.
Over time, it became clear to investigators that this was no ordinary case of stalking but the work of a savvy individual with a sophisticated knowledge of technology.
The number of victims, meanwhile, started to mount – 10 at last count, all from Western New York and many of them underage girls. Even more alarming, perhaps, the man police suspected behind it all lived more than 300 miles away in Michigan.
“We don’t have geography as a limiting factor anymore,” said Christopher M. Piehota, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Buffalo. “The physical boundaries that were once a factor in stalking? They’ve been removed.”
The lack of boundaries didn’t stop the FBI and local police from tracking down James S. Allen, the Detroit man now at the center of the biggest local cyberstalking case ever.
Allen, who appeared in Buffalo federal court for the first time last week, faces felony charges of cyberstalking, trafficking in computer passwords and making harassing telephone calls.
“Ten different people were victimized so this was not an isolated incident,” U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said. “This is certainly the largest cyberstalking case that we’ve seen in this district.”
National experts say the Allen case is significant in terms of the number of victims and the fact that he’s a stranger accused of harassing women from a state halfway across the country.
What’s not unusual, they say, was his reliance on technology. Gone are the days when the method of harassment was the telephone or a visit to the front door.
“These days, it’s very rare for a stalking case not to involve technology,” said Michelle Garcia, director of the National Stalking Resource Center in Washington, D.C.
Court papers depict Allen as a predator who targeted girls as young as age 14 by using Internet-related technology to identify and contact them.
His ultimate goal, according to investigators, was to persuade the girls, through fear and intimidation, to engage in Skype video chats with him.
More than one of the girls, afraid that Allen had revealing pictures, agreed to the chats, according to court papers. Authorities do not believe Allen possessed revealing pictures of the victims.
“I will embarrass you,” he allegedly told one victim in a text message. “You do realize that your (computer) and phone store everything you do, right?”
“How would you get my phone?” the girl answered. “Watch and learn how,” Allen told her, according to court papers. “How about I send to everyone within 200 miles of you?”
“Why would you do that,” the girl responded. “Do u even know me?”
That text conversation is just one of many in a federal complaint detailing Allen’s alleged harassment of 10 females, most of them from Kenmore.
Prosecutors say it’s unclear why he targeted girls in Western New York, but they think they know how – a phishing Web page.
More and more, cybercriminals are using computer software and other forms of technology to “phish” for important personal information, including email addresses and passwords.
Often, it’s as simple as getting a person to click on an email link or log onto a website. And in most cases, the goal is to steal money from your bank account or access your credit cards.
In Allen, local prosecutors said, they discovered a first: the use of phishing technology to stalk women.
“We haven’t seen this type of sophistication before,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango.
From his home in Detroit, hundreds of miles away, Allen used a phishing Web page to capture the email addresses and passwords of his victims and then, through text and Web messages, make threatening demands.
Even worse, perhaps, his success with one victim – often through Facebook – led him to others.
“Once he found one victim, it opened him to all that victim’s friends,” Mango said.
Stalking experts say there’s a lot to be learned from the Allen case, and chief among them is what women and other potential victims need to know about the risks of using social media, cellphones and other forms of technology.
“That balance between freedom and safety is an individual thing,” said Garcia of the National Stalking Resource Center. “You can’t say to someone, stop using Facebook.”
Just a few years ago, the technology of choice for stalkers was a GPS device hidden inside a car or a video surveillance camera inside someone’s home.
Stalkers today are more sophisticated. Their tools can range from spyware, which tracks a person’s computer use, to geotagging, which can identify the location of a Web page or social media account.
Allen’s tactics went ever further, investigators said. Court papers indicate he created several fake Facebook profiles and suggest he went so far as to hack into his victims’ Facebook accounts and pose as a Facebook administrator asking them to contact him via their webcams.
The only way to avoid those type of threats is through education and awareness, Garcia said. All Facebook users should know about their privacy settings and avoid posting important personal information, she said.
“The concept of privacy now is so different than it was just a few years ago,” she said.
Law enforcement officials agree, especially when it comes to children and young adults who may be naive about the world around them.
Today’s warnings about social media are, in many ways, no different than the common-sense counseling Hochul said he received as a young boy – advice like “look both ways before you cross the street.”
“Parents need to be very vigilant with their children,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to defend yourself against someone you don’t know or can’t see.”
His advice for anyone with a cellphone or computer is be careful who you communicate with and think twice about opening emails or clicking on websites you may not be familiar with.
People should be aware that 16 percent of all stalking victims are targeted through online enticements, Piehota said. For that reason alone, he recommended computer users rely on privacy settings and use secure browsing whenever possible. He also suggested people avoid doing banking and others types of private business in unsecured wireless locations.
Piehota’s advice is rooted in what is becoming a priority for the FBI: cybercrimes and cybersafety. The bureau recently announced Safe Online Surfing, a new Web-based initiative designed to help teachers educate students about the do’s and don’ts of online usage.
U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder last week ordered Allen not to communicate with his victims, even while in jail. Allen’s defense lawyer declined to comment for this story.