Online safety for children: signs of child predators, sextortion
Children have unlimited access to the Internet through social media and games, but so do predators. This is how the FBI tracks them down.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Give a cell phone to a child and he will have access to the world. But the world now has access to it.
It’s a stark truth that parents across the country are learning as law enforcement deals with a record number of child exploitation cases – and it’s playing out across Kentuckiana.
Online predators take advantage of children with unrestricted internet access through social media and online games, and the police use this information to put them behind bars.
Seven Kentucky men, caught in an undercover operation in November 2020, face 10 years in life in prison for a number of child sex crimes. In their case, the “victims” were undercover agents.
But the reality across the state is far more tragic. The police are working hundreds similar cases across Kentucky, and those are just a fraction of the thousands of complaints they receive each year.
It starts small …
“The accessibility of our children makes them a perfect target and they are vulnerable, they trust. They don’t believe anyone is trying to lie to them,” said Jeremy Wright, a special watchdog with the FBI Division. Louisville.
Wright is the father of three boys and knows how quickly a simple conversation can lead to something sinister. He said criminals were finding children on social media accounts such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat and, on several occasions, would ask to move the conversation to another messaging platform, like Kik.
“Kik wasn’t planning on going down that route, but it became this underground messaging platform, and you can have different bands, like, you know, ‘Pervs in KY’ and ‘I Like Young Boys. “It’s really scary,” Wright said.
Then there are online gaming platforms like PlayStation and Xbox.
“You can communicate, you can chat, you can talk, you can send messages. It’s an independent form of communication even when you’re not playing the game, like an app,” Wright said.
What kids can’t see is that the person they’re talking to can be just as fictional as the characters they control.
Wright said he recently had a case of a 48-year-old registered sex offender in Kentucky posing as a young boy on Facebook and Instagram, targeting children in several states.
“It had a slogan, ‘Hey honey.’ Every time, ”Wright said. “A lot of times it didn’t work, but how many times does it take before you victimize a child and completely change their life? “
Wright says that’s when the “grooming” begins.
“It starts more modestly. It’s a dressy photo, then ‘Oh, I need more’ and the compliments start to come in. Eventually they feel more comfortable, then it gets more naked, and the videos are more sexual in nature. “
The end goal: to meet this child for sex.
“If they can’t get them to do what they want, they’re going to threaten them, which we call sextortion,” Wright said.
Who is working to stop these crimes?
The FBI is one of a handful of agencies across the state and nationwide that are working to resolve these cases, with forensic specialists working around the clock.
“Our job has become increasingly difficult with all the data on the market these days,” said Kimberly Milka, special agent for surveillance at the Louisville FBI and director of the Kentucky Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory.
It’s a rare glimpse of the FBI criminal lab in Louisville. Specialists sift through cell phones, laptops, DVRs, and even your automotive system data for any evidence that could put a predator behind bars.
“If we can’t find it, we can find people who do,” Milka said.
This space is available to local, state and federal police departments, each with their own workload. Many receive their cyber advice from ISPs and social media companies who are required to notify the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) when they find meaningful images.
Just look at these numbers from a recent New York Times survey.
- In 1998, more than 3,000 images of child sexual abuse were circulating online.
- Barely 2 years later, that number has risen to 100,000.
- In 2018, over 45 million images and videos were reported as “child sexual abuse” on the dark web.
Helping the children of Kentuckiana
“I don’t think anyone would have imagined that we would be where we are now,” said Pam Darnall, CEO of Family and Children’s Place in Louisville.
The center works closely with the Crimes Against Children unit of LMPD to prevent child abuse and neglect, stop it when it occurs, and help affected families heal. Children’s advocacy centers like Darnall’s play a huge role in these investigations, which peaked during the pandemic, when children and adults were forced to stay at home, spending even more time than habit online.
“We’ve seen more children here at this child advocacy center than we’ve seen in six years,” Darnall said. Family and Children’s Place covers ten counties in Kentucky and five in southern Indiana.
“Of the more than 1,500 children we saw in the past fiscal year, about 30% of them were linked to cybercrime and internet crime,” Darnall said.
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Trained personnel participate in these interviews with blind children, knowing few details other than the age and name of the victim. It is up to the child to reveal his story.
“What sometimes happens with children who are not looked after at home is that they look outwards, don’t they? did it… and started sharing pictures, and the intention of this adult hooking up with this youngster was to take him to a different state, ”Darnall said.
She said police caught the predator before it got this far. But not all cases are so successful.
“Sometimes children are threatened,” Darnall said. She said predators would offer money or gifts to children they hurt to keep the relationship going.
“Sometimes children have a very difficult decision to make,” she said. “But one of the important things to remember is that it is not the responsibility of this child. It is always the adult who hurt this child, and it is our job, as adults, to do our best to find out what’s going on to keep this child safe. “
What happens when someone gets caught?
The minimum sentence for most of these child exploitation crimes is 15 years at the federal level. Wright said the majority of his cases never make it to a jury.
“No one has been tried, for many reasons,” he said. “The evidence was exceptional against them and two, once the trial goes on, the details become public and they don’t want to.”
Even prison is not enough to stop the worst criminals – Kentucky has several repeat offenders.
Last year, state and local police departments made 88 arrests across Kentucky related to child exploitation, totaling 520 counts, according to the Kentucky attorney general’s office.
This year, that number rises to 58 arrests. Those numbers more than double once you add in the cases handled at the federal level, involving the FBI, Secret Service, and Homeland Security.
What you can do to protect yourself and your children
“At this point it’s up to us, as parents, school administrators, as citizens, to do what we can to educate our children so that they don’t fall prey to this,” Wright said. .
Here are some tips you can share:
- Never send compromising images of yourself to anyone, no matter who they are – or say they are.
- Don’t open email attachments from people you don’t know. Links can secretly hack your electronic devices by using malware to access your private data, including photos and contacts. Additionally, hackers can use this technology to control your webcam and microphone without your knowledge.
- Turn off your electronics and webcams when you’re not using them.
You can see additional tips and suggestions here or on the FBI website.
If you receive threats, remember that you are not alone – thousands of people fall victim to this scam every year. Stop all interaction with the other person and contact law enforcement.
You can file a complaint with the FBI IC3 here.
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