(NewsNation) — What began with strange texts and prank pizza deliveries ended in a man’s death after a case of violent internet extortion went wrong.
Chris Eberle and Mark Herring were early to the social media game. Both men possessed highly coveted social media handles: Herring’s @tennessee and Eberle’s @ginger.
“It was a whole thing; it was a lot of fun,” Eberle said. “It was a part of my identity.”
But in March 2020, Eberle received a strange text about his account. It read: “Hey Christopher, going to need @ginger on Instagram, harassment to you and your family starts now.”
Initially, Eberle thought it was a joke.
“I responded, maybe not the most thoughtful response, but I responded with ‘lol,’” Eberle said. “They wrote back ‘haha, okay.’”
It didn’t take long for Eberle to realize he was being extorted. A half-hour later, he received a call from someone outside his house with a tow truck who said Eberle had requested one.
The pranks didn’t stop there and over the next few days the stunts escalated. Eberle’s former landlord was swatted and his son’s school was forced into lockdown.
He had become the target of an elaborate online extortion scheme run by cybercriminals hoping to acquire “OG” social media handles — recognizable names, words and phrases — to sell on the dark web.
The handles can go for thousands of dollars.
Scott Augenbaum, a retired FBI agent and cybersecurity expert, has seen a rise in online extortion cases as original handles have become prime internet real estate.
“The cybercriminals realize there’s some money in them, so instead of going out and trying to purchase these handles, they’re going out and they’re up to a lot of dirty tricks — trying to extort regular people into giving up this stuff,” Augenbaum said.
After months of harassment, Eberle made the decision to hand his unique handle over to a nonprofit.
“I got to a point where I was over it,” Eberle said. “It was just not worth it.”
Herring wasn’t so lucky. One night in early March 2020, his daughter, Cori Fitch, received several suspicious pizza deliveries for her father. What Fitch believed to be a prank soon escalated into something much more sinister.
“A kid from the United Kingdom called the 911 in his district and said that his name was Mark Herring. He claimed he met a woman on Tinder, shot her in the back of the head and killed her, and that his whole house was pipe bombed,” Fitch said.
In no time, the authorities were at Herring’s doorstep and the encounter turned into a tragedy.
“When he stood up to put his hands up over his heart, he had a heart attack, and fell and hit his head and died,” Fitch said.
What Fitch didn’t know was that Herring had received several phone calls that day related to his Twitter handle.
“When he blocked the number, that’s when the harassment started,” Fitch said.
Herring was targeted by three individuals, all minors who had uploaded his information on the messaging app Discord.
Only one of the individuals, Shane Sonderman, was ever caught and indicted by a grand jury for targeting six victims in separate internet extortion cases.
The main perpetrator, who was a minor in the United Kingdom at the time, has never faced any consequences.
“These bad guys are located outside of the United States in a lot of instances and some are even juveniles,” Augenbaum said. “What do you do when the bad guy is located in another country? It makes it so challenging for law enforcement.”
Herring took his handle to his grave. It has remained unused since his death.
“He grew up going to the mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. He was a big Tennessee Vols fan and I wish he could see this season because we’re 7-0 and we beat Alabama,” Fitch said of her father. “He would have been so happy…he loved everything about Tennessee.”
While swatting and extortion cases are extremely rare, cybercrime isn’t and anyone can become a victim.
Augenbaum shared tips to stay safe: Never share your username or password with anyone, set up two factor authentication on all your social media sites and make sure your children’s accounts are as anonymous as possible.