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A deli­cious Cottage Inn pizza.

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.”