Seduced in Cyberspace
Six years ago, Justin was a typical "boy next door." Between homework and band practice, he found time to run a legitimate small business creating websites. A self-described "computer nerd," Justin was excited to get an inexpensive webcam. He planned to use the simple tool—a video camera that connects to the Internet—to meet friends and chat with girls. Justin joined a popular website and posted his profile. Instant messages immediately started popping up on his computer.
When one man told Justin he'd pay him $50 to take off his shirt, Justin considered it a harmless proposal from a friend. "I take my shirt off to go to the pool," he thought, and logged on to an online payment website to accept payment.
In addition to money, Justin says the men offered him gifts to show their appreciation, teaching him how to set up an online "wish list" where he could register for cool computer gear. He believed the whole process was perfectly safe because his home address was not revealed to buyers.
Justin says his mother and stepfather had no idea he was receiving gifts from strangers—he intercepted most deliveries before they had a chance to see them. When his mom did come across a package, he would tell her he bought it himself with the profits from his Web development business.
If anybody should have known what was going on in Justin's life, Karen says it was her—she works with children who have been molested. "I've studied for years and I know the signs," she says. "That's why it's so mind boggling that this happened to Justin right here in my own home."
When Justin returned home, the man continued to exploit him. He paid for a secret apartment for Justin just minutes from his parents' home, allowing him to spend more time on his webcam.
He arrived in Mexico with plenty of cash from his webcam business. When his father asked him where he had gotten so much money, Justin told him the truth.
Justin says that with his father's assistance, he created his most sophisticated website yet. Before long, the website had more than 1,000 adult subscribers who paid monthly fees to watch Justin perform in live sex shows.
Justin, who was 16 years old at the time, was having sex with prostitutes and broadcasting it on the Internet as many as three times a day. He says his father helped by finding women to sleep with him. "It's disappointing to think that your own dad would do that," Justin says looking back.
At first Justin enjoyed the website's financial success, but he began using drugs and found his life spiraling out of control. He didn't know who to turn to... until he met Kurt Eichenwald, a reporter for The New York Times.
Kurt read more of the online discussions and discovered that these men were talking about where Justin was, where he had been and what he had done...they were completely involved in Justin's life, Kurt says. He decided that someone needed to help Justin.
Kurt managed to track Justin down via the Internet. After several online conversations, Kurt gained his trust and Justin agreed to meet him at a Los Angeles airport.
Over time, Justin learned to trust Kurt and began heeding his advice. "I remember someone caring and telling me to stop using drugs," Justin says. "I don't know why I listened to him, to be honest. But I know every time that I listened, things got better."
Justin opened up to Kurt and described the dark underworld of "camkids"—children who use webcams to produce pornography. He also described how credit card corporations and other adult enterprises helped him operate his business. Kurt knew that this story wasn't just about Justin—there were many more victims out there.
"By that point, I knew that this kid was at the center of a massive criminal enterprise—that he knew everything," Kurt says. "I had to get him to flip on a business that was paying him thousands of dollars a week. I had to get him to the point where he was sober so that he could talk to me. And he said, 'I'll do it.'"
Kurt says that Justin's detailed records—five years' worth of saved online chats and financial transactions—will help prosecute Justin's predators, but reading back through such abusive conversations was an emotionally difficult task. "They said things to this child that you would not say to a dead prostitute," Kurt says.
Kurt's findings deeply troubled Justin. "It frightened me so much to think that these people ... are around kids all day long," Justin says. "It just killed me."
Even though Justin's name was blacked out in federal documents, the alleged offenders were easily able to figure out his identity. Word spread quickly through the child pornography community, and Justin says he has received multiple death threats.
Justin's story, while shocking, is only one case in a huge industry that is destroying hundreds of children's lives. "They are being lured into it from their bedrooms," Kurt says. "That's the reason [Justin] is here today. He wants parents to understand what's happening behind closed doors."
Justin says he is as surprised as anybody by the dark turn his life took at age 13. "I never would have guessed that would happen to me," he says. "This can happen to any kid."