It was a normal night in November 2019 at the Cote house. The boys were heading off to their basketball games when Shanna Cote received four unordered pizza deliveries from four separate pizza stores. The next night, the Cotes received the same unordered deliveries at their new, but not yet occupied, house.
“My younger kids were a little freaked out,” Cote, art director for Hillsdale College, said. “How do they have our rental, new house, and work information? This is not stuff you can get in one place.”
Cote would eventually learn that the pizza deliveries were a part of a larger coercion scheme to take her Instagram username.
Earlier that month, Cote had received unordered pizza to her office with a note saying the pizza was from Instagram. This would happen three times to the Cote family, all in an attempt to coerce Cote into giving up her Instagram username. She eventually called the local police, who sent her to the state police, to handle the issue.
“The state trooper told me nothing illegal was happening and he couldn’t do anything,” Cote said. “Even harassment is illegal, and at the very least it was harassment.”
Left to her own devices, Cote eventually found three others who experienced similar harassment, after one victim reached out to her through LinkedIn. According to Cote, living in a smaller city meant that she was relatively safer than other victims of this type of digital harassment. Some of the other victims, residents of larger cities, received unordered Uber rides or taxis at 3 a.m. In more serious examples, still more were victims of “swatting.”
Swatting is a criminal harassment tactic of calling either the police or emergency services to bring the police, and even SWAT teams, to a particular address when no real emergency or threat exists. The practice has been around since the early 2000s and a confirmed investigation by the FBI is currently happening in Stow, Ohio, where the same suspect in Cote’s case allegedly called the police to the home of one of the other victim’s parents.
It wasn’t until Cote and three others from around the United States did their own investigation that they learned these “pranks” were part of a systematic attempt to coerce them to give up their Instagram usernames.
According to Cote, there’s a lucrative market for short Instagram usernames. Her handle, @shan, is both short and potentially useful for the suspect in custody, Shane Sonderman.
After the swatting incident in Ohio, the FBI took notice of the case.
“For me, there was minimal contact or involvement with law enforcement after the state trooper told me nothing was happening,” Cote said. “Since then, I’ve talked to the FBI agent in Tennessee. When this first started happening to me, everybody thought it was a teenager playing a prank.”
The court case, USA vs Shane Sonderman, is being tried in Tennessee because the suspect resides there. The five victims identified, including the parents of one victim, reside in Oregon, Ohio, Tennessee, New York, Virginia, and Michigan. Cote’s initials are included in the list of victims of “overt acts” of harassment inflicted by the defendant.
Sonderman is charged with multiple offenses, including extortion, transmitting communication with threats to kidnap or injure, and swatting from August 2019 to May 2020.
The criminal case claims that the defendant and his co-conspirators established fake accounts on social media in order to find users with high-value usernames on Instagram, Snapchat, Minecraft, Twitter, and other social media platforms that could be sold on the internet.
As part of the attempt to extort a username from someone, the defendant and his co-conspirators would obtain the names, addresses and phone numbers of the owner’s family members.
Harassment tactics included unordered pizza deliveries, changing phone numbers to make sure that calls could not be blocked, using temporary email accounts, and swatting the owner of the Instagram handle or the residence of a member of the owner’s family.
The suspect pleaded not guilty and is currently out on bail and awaiting trial.
Cote said the most surprising part of the experience was that “people blew it off.” Coming from a smaller town, though, Cote said incidents like this probably don’t happen very often and so they are not taken seriously.
Hillsdale County Undersheriff Carl Albright said digital harassment is not uncommon for those who live in the county.
“It’s kind of frequent in today’s internet world and social media,” he said. “Harassers need to bear in mind that making threats and using any type of social media to make that threat is a 10-year felony.”
Dean of Men Aaron Petersen said he does not recall any incidents in which he had to assist a student with an online threat or digital harassment.
“I can probably count on two hands the amount of social media issues I’ve had, and it’s mostly students complaining about posts that fellow students have made,” he said. “I can’t recall having had much of this.”
Since this experience, Cote said she is much more aware of digital safety.
“I never really thought much about it until after this experience,” she said. “It makes me very cautious now. We have always talked about digital security with our kids but it definitely makes me more alert to keep an eye on stuff like that.”