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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Mid Week Special by DN's Matt Leader:
Geneseo Student and Snapchat victim shares her story as she prepares to confront her violator at sentencing

Natalie Claus spent the weeks and months after Dec. 5, 2019, walking around the campus of SUNY Geneseo with her head down. It was on that day Claus learned a man she’d never met had accessed her Snapchat account, stolen a nude photograph in her “My eyes only” folder and sent it to 116 of her friends along with the message “Flash me back if we are besties,” in a perverted attempt to get them to send nude photographs back to him.

The photo spread widely on campus, in part via student group chats.

“I can’t walk around campus without looking at people and wondering, knowing I used to have them on my Snapchat, wondering ‘Did you see that photo? Do you know about it? Do you know that it’s me? If you did, did you even care? Are you one of the people who made fun of it?’’ said Claus during an interview in July. “I can’t walk around campus now without having those thoughts run through my head and it’s awful. I feel like I can’t, I feel – I don’t know how to describe it. It’s humiliating. It’s awful.”

Agents with the FBI’s cybercrime task force later identified the man who illegally accessed Claus’s Snapchat account as David Mondore, a 29-year-old New York City resident, who as part of a deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Mondore pleaded guilty in June to one count of accessing a protected computer without authorization for the purposes of committing a fraud. In so doing, Mondore admitted to hacking into more than 300 Snapchat accounts over a period of more than two years – the brunt of them belonging to victims in the eastern half of New York State. Some of his victims were minors. Many attended Bethlehem High School in Delmar, Albany County.

Mondor is scheduled to be sentenced today in Buffalo.

Claus plans on attending Mondore’s sentencing and making a victim impact statement. She told The Livingston County News that she is “absolutely terrified” to come face to face with Mondore.

“I’ve never met this person before, I’ve never spoken to this person before and yet he completely violated me and changed my life forever,” she said. “And I know that everybody says ‘Oh, you’re so strong, you’re so brave for going to the police,’ but it’s not a question of being brave or strong. I don’t feel like either of those things… and I don’t know how I’m going to be able to look him in the eye and be in the same room as him because I don’t feel like either of those things.”

The FBI was aided in its efforts to find and arrest Mondore by Claus’s friend, Kate Yates, a fellow SUNY Geneseo student who, minutes after Claus’ incident, used a digital bait-and-switch technique she’d learned from a past online harassment ordeal of her own to trick Mondore into clicking on a false hyperlink. Once Mondore clicked it, Yates gained access to detailed information about his IP address, web browser, operating system, iPhone device and his approximate street address, which she gave to Claus who, in turn, passed it on to authorities.

Shock and horror

The evening of Dec. 5 is burned into Claus’s memory. It was the middle of finals week and she had a project due the next day. She was in Bailey Hall, joking, talking and laughing with her sorority sisters as she worked on her project. She got up from the booth she was working in and walked over to grab some pages she’d just printed off when one of her sorority sisters joined her at the printer.

“She said, kind of joking, ‘Nice picture, but you know be careful who you send that to,’ and I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ She was like, ‘The picture, the Snapchat you just sent me.’ I was like ‘I haven’t been on Snapchat, what are you talking about? I didn’t send anything to you,’” Claus recalled. “And this look of complete shock and horror came over her face as she kind of realized what was happening before I even realized what was happening.”

Claus soon learned the friend of a friend she’d let use her account to check and see if another user had blocked her some 30 minutes prior was not who she claimed to be. After learning her photograph had been sent out, Claus immediately tried to get back into her account, but couldn’t.

“It said my email had been changed, my password had been changed and that now, two-step authorization was now enabled so I couldn’t get back in,” said Claus who, by that time, had started to receive calls and texts from friends and family, asking why she’d sent a nude photo. “...They were like ‘Dude what the heck?’ I’m like ‘That’s not me, I didn’t send that.’”

The panic came on quickly, then – like something out of a movie. Everything got slow. her ears started ringing and she had trouble breathing as she made her way back to the booth she’d been sitting in with her friends and fumbled for her phone. Before she’d even fully comprehended what was happening, Claus received a call from her mother, who learned of the incident from her sister after Mondore sent the photograph to Claus’s cousin.

“So I didn’t even get a chance to tell her,” said Claus. “My mom calls me. Freaking out, pissed. Scared, kind of angry - not angry, angry.”

Claus decided to report the incident to SUNY Geneseo’s University Police Department and then called her best friend, Kate Yates, who found Claus sobbing in an empty classroom.

While they waited for UPD officers to arrive, Yates offered to give Claus her phone so she could delete the photograph from Yates’ Snapchat account so Claus would “at least have power over me seeing it.”

“And she was like ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’” Yates recalled. “Then I was like ‘Or, I could try to bait this person into giving me his information.’ She was like ‘How would you do that?’”

Earlier on in her time at SUNY Geneseo, Yates was the target of an online harassment campaign – she believes by a former SUNY Geneseo student upset over the outcome of a Title IX case he and Yates were involved in. It was through their mutual involvement in the Title IX case - “It’s kind of a f----- up story,” – that Yates and Claus first met and became friends.

“I was getting sent really awful messages on basically every single platform that I had social media on,” said Yates. “Whoever it was would make a burner account, send a really awful message, delete the account so it couldn’t be traced.”

In an effort to identify who was sending her these messages, Yates taught herself how to create and disguise a hyperlink that would reroute through a server she had access to, giving her unique insight into the device – and therefore, the person – who had clicked on the link.

“I never ended up catching that person because what they would do is delete the account as soon as they sent the message so they never ended up clicking on the links that I would send,” said Yates, “but I was still able to use it for this, so I was glad I learned how to do it.”

Figuring the person who’d hacked Claus’s Snapchat account was “kind of a perv,” Yates set about creating a fake link to what appeared to be a pornographic website. Playing on the message Mondore had sent along with Claus’s nude photo - “Flash me back if we are besties,” - Yates wrote up a reply feigning pleasant surprise and fired it off to Mondore.

Instead of bringing Mondore to an OnlyFans account, a website known for its subscriber-based pornographic content, the link rerouted Mondore through Yates’s server before bringing him to a webpage listing the dictionary definition of the word “gotcha.”

Low point in life

After reporting the incident to UPD – a deeply uncomfortable experience that Claus said came with what she felt was silent judgment from one of the two male officers – Claus went back to her residence hall and didn’t leave her room for a week.

“I went and bought her food because I knew, otherwise, she was going to survive on the couple of granola bars she had in there,” said Yates.

It was a low point in Claus’s life. At one point, pills in hand, she thought seriously about killing herself.

“I was terrified for her,” Yates said. “I didn’t leave her alone because she wanted to kill herself. She had scissors and tweezers and stuff in her room - I took them away because... we’ve both been very candid with each other about struggling with self harm in the past and so I was like ‘I just want to make sure you’re safe.’”

Over the next few days, Claus recounted her experience to officers with the Geneseo Police Department and State Police, deputies with the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office, the college’s Title IX staff, friends, family and, eventually, agents with the FBI.

Those first few weeks after the hack were especially hard, but once the FBI decided to take on Claus’s case, Yates said she started to see positive improvements in her friend’s state of mind.

“Hearing something was going to be done – that was when she started feeling like she was able to go back to class and kind of start to get on with her life,” she said.

Over the coming months, Claus would occasionally check in with the agents working her case.

Court records show the FBI was able to track the IP address Mondore used to illegally access Claus’s account back to a pick your phone number service he had been using and, eventually, to Mondore himself.

Finally, on Aug. 28, 2020, the lead agent on Claus’s case sent her a link to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office announcing Mondore’s arrest.

“I was kind of just in shock,” said Claus. “It was the best that this person – that they had actually got him. I was expecting this case to take forever... but the fact that I had an arrest by the end of August was staggering.”

For Claus, there was also a sense of relief that Mondore would no longer be able to create new victims.

“A lot of the victims that I knew about were still in high school who didn’t want to come forward because they didn’t want to get in trouble, they didn’t want their parents to find out, they didn’t want to get in trouble for sending these photos to begin with,” said Claus. “And I figured ‘Well, he’s already got my photos, people already know, my parents already know, I don’t have anything left to lose, and I want to make sure he doesn’t get away with this because I have allowed too many people to get away with hurting me and I’m not going to let this happen again and I’m not going to let him get away with it and I’m not going to let him get away with hurting other people because I wouldn’t come forward.”

Seeking change

Claus occasionally finds herself wondering why Mondore chose to target her, but has yet to come up with a good answer.

“He was account hopping. He was just going from account to account to account and I happened to be one. I happened to be an account that he picked,” said Claus. “Unluckily for him, he chose the wrong account.”

Part of the reason Claus decided to speak out about her experiences is to help spur change and improve the way society responds when survivors of sexual harassment and assault come forward.

She hopes SUNY Geneseo improves its Title IX office and expands the resources it offers when students report. She hopes the college’s University Police Department schedules female officers on nights and weekends so that female victims don’t have to recount their experiences to male officers.

She also cautioned against sharing personal information over social media with anyone “you do not absolutely trust” and encouraged other survivors of sexual harassment and assault to report their experiences to authorities.

“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault because somebody took advantage of you,” she said. “I believe you, there are people who believe you and there are people who will help you and for the love of God, please come forward.”

Sentencing not enough

Under the terms of his plea agreement with authorities, Mondore is a facing a sentencing recommendation of between 24 and 30 months in prison, a fine of between $10,000 and $95,000 and one to three years of post-release supervision, though a judge will have final say.

Claus said it’s not enough. She wants the maximum – five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“You get to completely destroy somebody’s life, spend, what, two years in prison and then get to walk away?” she said. “It’s not like that for me. It’s not like that for any of the other victims. We don’t get to just put this away once the trial is done, once the sentencing is done. We don’t get to put this away, ever.”

Claus plans on telling Mondore as much when she gives her victim impact statement in court. She’ll tell him that when he stole her photos, she was 19 but that now, she’s 21. She’ll tell Mondore that before he came along, she was on track to graduate a year early but that now, she’ll only graduate a semester early. She’ll tell him that she grappled with an eating disorder in high school, suffers from chronic anxiety and depression. That she loves to bake. That she’s a survivor of sexual assault.

All the while, she’ll keep her eyes on Mondore. She wants him to see her, to understand that it is because of her that he is going to prison. She doesn’t know how she’ll muster the courage to keep up the eye contact, but is determined to do so.

“I want to be able to look him in the eye so that maybe I can go back to campus that day with my head held up instead of down,” she said.

And once Claus is done speaking – she’s the only one of Mondore’s more than 300 victims who plans on addressing the court – and Mondore is led away to prison, Claus will get in her car and drive back to Geneseo.

She’s scheduled to graduate in December and hopes to attend graduate school at the University of Albany.

“They have a really awesome dual program, dual masters program in history and archival studies and I’d really like to work in the archives and maybe teach someday at the college level,” Claus said. “Who knows?”

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