I-TEAM INVESTIGATES: A 'digital kidnapping' found one SC woman sexually exploited and she didn't even know it

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Monday, April 1, 2019
News 12 at 6 O'Clock

BEECH ISLAND, SC (WRDW/WAGT) -- A Beech Island woman was kidnapped and sexually exploited -- and she didn't even know it until an investigator knocked on her door.

A stranger stole her childhood pictures off of social media, portrayed himself as her father, and shared on child pornography sites.

So how did this happen? Let’s take a scroll through Madeline Webster's page. Best friends and selfies, family and football, pageants and prom. You watch a bright-eyed 10-year-old girl grow into a 20-year-old woman.

“I’m about to deactivate my Facebook and Instagram so I can start over,” Webster said.

What the man, who has not yet been identified, had done with her childhood pictures is nauseating.

A few weeks back, police arrested a man in New York for child pornography.

“They found pictures of me, and he was actually on his way down here to so-called buy me and take me off with him,” Webster said.

It was a stranger – at least to her – posing as her father that shared picture with the man police arrested. Her pictures were also posted on child pornography websites.

It’s just really scary,” Webster said. “You just never think it can happen to you. I don’t know. It gives me chills.”

She wasn’t physically kidnapped, but she was digitally. Digital kidnapping is when a stranger steals a minor’s photo from the internet and uses it as if it’s their own photo.

Digital kidnapping is most prevalent in online role-playing games. Players take photos from social media pages and pretend to either be the child or the parent of the child. Players even assign others to be virtual family members. But there are also darker reasons for digital kidnapping.

“I’m still watching my back because the guy still hasn’t been caught,” Webster said of the man who started the whole thing.

Webster doesn’t know the person who’s pretending to be her father. But he knows a lot about her. Her friends, her school, her work – it’s all on social media. It’s also how investigators found her.

“They showed up at the house,” Webster said. “They found my address off social media.”

There’s no going back. Webster’s image is on the internet forever. But going forward, she says things will be different.

“I don’t think I would post as much or put as many pictures,” Webster said.

Webster is now going to make sure her privacy settings on social media are locked down for her friends’ eyes only.

Even if investigators catch the person pretending to her father, Webster has little recourse legally. The best way to prevent digital kidnapping is through social media settings. On Instagram, make your profile private, and on Facebook, click "limit past posts."