Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ed Wagrowski extracts data from cellphones in his work with the county’s computer crimes unit.
OAKLAND COUNTY — Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard recently said online predators are a “new reality” facing children.
Part of that “new reality” means that, even when children are at home with the doors and windows locked, it doesn’t mean they’re safe.
“Used to be, decades ago, when the doors were locked and the kids are home, they’re playing a board game, they’re watching TV or they’re doing their homework; I can let my guard down,” Bouchard said. “That’s not the case anymore. They can be on their cellphone or on a game and be talking to one of the worst predators in the world, real time, and be coerced to do something over the internet or, worse, meeting them in person.”
One of the tactics used by predators is to convince children that the predator is the only one who understands and cares about the child, with the intent of building rapport.
Getting kids to talk about their problems related to parents and school issues can be used as a ploy by predators to help break down barriers.
Multiplayer video games and chat apps can be an easy entry point for predators.
Adults with bad intentions can pose as children and make up stories of hardship as a way of gaining trust.
In May of last year, the United States Department of Justice released information about a California man who was sentenced to 14 years in prison after coercing a minor he met via the online game “Clash of Clans” into producing child pornography.
It has gotten a lot more complex than merely telling kids not to talk to or accept candy from strangers.
The modern reality is that predators have a lot more options at their disposal.
“It used to be chat rooms and direct contact,” Bouchard said. “Now they can be contacted in conversations while they play Xbox and somebody could have a profile that makes them appear to be a kid their age, a peer. They build a rapport and a relationship. They start talking to young kids, and they break down the suspicion or fear. Ultimately, the goal is to get them to either do something online or meet in person, or sometimes both.”
Unfortunately for parents and authorities, that goal is easier to achieve than it used to be.
“It’s very sophisticated, because they can ply their trade from the quiet of their basement,” Bouchard said. “And if they’re using different techniques to mask their identity, to mask their server, to mask their location, it gives them a higher degree of anonymity than they used to have when they used to hang out around school playgrounds. So, they have that going for them.”
Bouchard referred to it as a “sick kind of addiction,” with end goals varying, depending on the predator.
“One is to sexually or physically assault or abuse a child for gratification, whether through getting pictures of them or in person,” he said. “And the other is financial, to use them as a conduit to get to the parents. We’ve seen both. We’ve seen where they got the child into a very compromising, embarrassing position or doing certain things over the webcam. They say, ‘OK, now if you don’t go get your mom or dad’s credit card, give us the information, we’re (going to) post this on the internet, send it to your classmates.’”
Bouchard said webcams are a “big problem.”
When his children were little, he broke the cameras so they were inoperable.
However, he understands that, now, many children are being educated by logging onto Zoom, which is only operable via webcams.
Some of those children are getting that education from computers provided by school districts.
The Oakland County Intermediate School District provides computers to districts within the county.
According to Tammy Evans, who is the assistant superintendent of shared services and the chief information officer for Oakland Schools, safety measures have been installed on computers to help protect children from potential online dangers.
“There is federal law requiring content filtering — CIPA is the Children’s Internet Protection Act,” Evans wrote via email. “If districts do not purposefully filter internet content under this regulation, they will lose funding under the (Schools and Libraries Program, known as E-Rate, of the Universal Service Fund. E-Rate) is a federal program intended to fund the expansion of internet and digital inclusion for schools.”
Evans also wrote that, “the chosen solution is an all-inclusive application that we install on every device using a remote management tool.”
The websites used by predators to try to entice children vary, as does the age range of intended victims.
The length of time between initial contact and criminal activity can also vary, as some predators may spend months “grooming” a child before attempting to meet, whereas others arrange meetings the same day, according to Bouchard.
He offered some tips for parents.
“You have to be aware of what your kids are doing, what they’re playing, who they’re communicating with,” Bouchard said. “You have to have discussions with them in an age-appropriate way about what they can and cannot do, should and should not do online. … You have to be aware of settings on the computer you can control, settings on the internet, software restrictions that highlight certain sites that may be prone to criminal activity. It’s a bit of work, but a parent of today needs to do that work to protect their kids.”
A case Bouchard cited can help serve as a reminder to parents to pay attention to who their kids are playing with and where they’re going.
“We had one case we broke where the guy had young children of his own and was using the young children to invite other young children to the house so he could victimize (them),” Bouchard said.
For as much as parents can do to help protect their children, kids can also help themselves by making good decisions.
“What we tell kids, and we make it age appropriate, (is) anybody that knows you knows your information,” Bouchard said. “They know your likes, your dislikes; they know where you live, what school you go to. Anybody that doesn’t know that and asks you about any of that over the computer, your phone or the internet shouldn’t have that information, shouldn’t get that information.”
Bouchard also shared a tip for both adults and children.
“We tell kids and parents, ‘don’t share personal information, don’t share personal photos, don’t share addresses and your whole life on the internet because the whole world can look at it,’” he said.
Bouchard became Oakland County’s sheriff in 1999, and he said setting up a computer crimes unit was “one of the first things I did.”
“Now, we have multiple detectives in there and they can’t keep up, so that tells you how the threat matrix has grown and how that’s become a real-world threat to families and kids,” he said.
If a parent suspects an online predator, Bouchard said that parent should “never be afraid to contact your local police.”
According to Bouchard, Oakland County can share resources with local officials.
Project Safe Childhood is an initiative that was launched by the Department of Justice. For more information, visit justice.gov/psc.
Those who are interested in learning more about cyber security tips for both children and adults can visit staysafeonline.org.