Crime & Courts

Family Of Sextortion Victim Sues SnapChat

Lawsuit alleges creators “defectively designed its product to addict minors and young adults.”

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The family of the late Timothy Barnett of Sumter, South Carolina has filed a lawsuit in federal court against Snapchat. The pleading comes just over one year after the 13-year-old boy took his own life after being targeted on the popular app by a sextortion scam.

The lawsuit — originally filed in U.S. district court in South Carolina by attorneys Jim Griffin and Joe Cunningham – was transferred to federal court in California, where Snapchat is based. It alleges, among other things, that the app’s creators “defectively designed (their) product to addict minors and young adults.”

In a post on X, Cunningham discussed the lawsuit and featured a heartbreaking video from Timothy’s family …

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EVERY PARENTS’ NIGHTMARE…

Everyone who knew and loved Timothy had their world come crashing down in the early morning hours of April 6, 2023 when his stepfather discovered his lifeless body in the front yard of their Sumter, S.C. home – with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

For Timothy’s mother, Betsy Hauptman, the nightmare that unfolded that fateful Thursday morning was just the beginning.

In the hours before his death, Timothy could be seen on security camera footage sitting in his mom’s car for anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours – frantically scrolling through his phone. She immediately noticed he seemed distracted and wondered whether he was on drugs, but the toxicology report run by the coroner indicated no drugs were in his system.

(Click to View)

(FITSTube)

What Betsy didn’t know at the time – what she couldn’t have known – was that Timothy had been the victim of sextortion. And that in the final moments of his life he was pleading with a nameless, faceless criminal not to expose him.

“Please, I’m just a child,” Timothy is said to have begged this unknown blackmailer.

Sextortion scams — which typically target young men between the age of 14-17 – and are occurring with increasing frequency in our country, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The agency has seen an especially large uptick in financial sextortion – in which teens are coerced into sending explicit images and then extorted for money.

In 2022, law enforcement received over 7,000 reports related to the online financial sextortion of minors, resulting in at least 3,000 victims – mostly young boys – and more than a dozen suicides, according to an FBI press release.

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RELATED | INNOCENCE SHATTERED

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According to the lawsuit, Timothy’s death was a direct result of Snapchat’s “unsafe design, lack of warnings, and inadequate parental controls,” which allowed the 13-year old to fall “victim to a sexual predator who extorted him by threatening to share sexually explicit images Timothy had been manipulated into sending” via the app.

Among the design flaws cited in the lawsuit:

  • Flawed age verification
  • Lack of meaningful mechanisms to prevent sham accounts
  • Default-public profiles
  • Matching and recommending connections between adults and minors
  • Promoting unsolicited messages and interactions from adults,
  • Wholly inadequate and ineffective parental controls

These flaws “allow children to be easily identified, targeted, accessed, and exploited,” the lawsuit alleged.

Even more concerning, according to the filing, is that the company “is well aware that vulnerable young users —whom (it) induces to spend large amounts of time on their products through a powerful combination of algorithmic recommendations and addictive features designed to make it hard for a user to disengage — are uniquely susceptible to grooming by seasoned sexual predators.”

“Research shows that young users are heavily reliant on their social connections—exploring and shaping their identity through their social relationships,” it noted.

Timothy Barnett had turned thirteen just weeks before his death. Barely a teenager, his mom recalled how his radiant smile lit up every room he entered – how he was the life of every party always cracking jokes and making people laugh.

To those who knew Timothy, he was a son, a brother, a friend and a diligent student – but most importantly, he was still a child.

Nonetheless, Timothy found himself a victim of sextortion by a stranger on Snapchat, and “overwhelmed by shame, trauma, and fear that the images would be publicly exposed, Timothy committed suicide on April 6, 2023.”

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RESOURCES…

With the enactment of Gavin’s Law in South Carolina, sextortion is now a felony punishable by lengthy prison sentences. But while the legislative language notes points to collaboration amongst government entities “to implement a policy to educate and notify students of the provisions of this act which includes adequate notice to students, parents or guardians, the public, and school personnel of the change in law,” there is no mention of a plan to educate those tasked with enforcing it and prosecuting it.

Click here for information on Gavin’s Law in South Carolina. To report possible exploitation of a young person or child, contact your local FBI field office, call 1-800-CALL-FBI, or report it online at tips.fbi.gov. Take a moment to learn how sextortion works and how to talk to your children about it. Information, resources, and conversation guides are available at fbi.gov/StopSextortion.

Remember, “no shame is worth losing your life over.”

Finally, if you know someone who is suicidal or who is considering harming themselves – including yourself – please call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at “988.” Launched in 2022, this organization is a national network that provides crisis support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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THE COMPLAINT…

(U.S. District Court)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

Karen.Ingram@sto.sc.gov Top fan June 22, 2024 at 7:16 pm

“I’m just a child” is going to stick with me for a long, long time.
May this young fellow rest in peace and may his family find peace in this troubled time.

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