Online scam targeting LGBT community rises to level of hate crime

(WXYZ) - There is a disturbing online scam targeting members of the LGBT community right here in metro Detroit.

Investigators have an important warning to avoid becoming a victim.

The victims are often gay men, who find themselves the targets of sinister scammers. Investigators say it rises to the level of a hate crime.

Dana Nessel, president of the group Fair Michigan says, "I would have primarily gay men come to see me to talk about the fact they were clearly extorted by someone who had set them up."

She adds, "I think this is a widespread scam, and the reason it's spreading is because it's effective. People are clearly going online and trying to find gay men in order to perpetrate this scam."

Nessel says people are often embarrassed and don't want to tell anyone about this, and some aren't even open about their sexuality. It starts at dating sites with categories for gay men where erotic photographs are sometimes exchanged. Then, meetings are possibly arranged where sexual acts take place.

"Shortly afterwards, the victim will be contacted and told the person they had sex with or exchanged erotic photographs with is actually a minor. They'll start getting text messages saying 'hey, I found out you hooked up with my 15-year-old son and I'm going to the police if you don't pay'," says Nessel.

In reality, both parties are consenting adults. No minors are involved. But, the person behind the hoax is adamant they'll go to the police unless their victim pays up.

"In some cases, it might be a few thousand dollars and up to $70,000. People are terrified. Because remember statutory rape in this state is a 15-year offense. You could go to prison for up to 15 years so people are terrified and they're paying," says Nessel.

Harper Woods Deputy Police Chief Ted Stager says, "Our victim finally reported the crime to us, and we got involved and did an investigation which led to his arrest."

The man they arrested was 26-year-old Devin Higgins of Warren. Recently charged with extortion, he's facing a 20 year felony plus separate federal charges.

"We do believe there's other victims out there who this defendant has victimized and was a predator towards. It's all greed. It's money. This is a way for an individual to get as much money as they can from a victim thinking they're not going to report it," says Stager.

Nessel tells us anyone engaging in online relationships that involve the exchange of sexual photos must insist on seeing ID to verify that person is an adult. The same goes for sexual acts performed between two parties.

"I would encourage anyone this happens to, to immediately contact police and let them know because clearly they are becoming the victim of a crime. Anytime you target somebody specifically based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, that qualifies as a hate crime" says Nessel.

Police want more possible victims to come forward. To contact the Fair Michigan Justice Project, please go to the website: www.fairmichigan.org

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