So, the Channel 3 I-Team is taking a look at sex trafficking and how predators use some of the most common and most innocent ways to find kids on social media.
“It used to be that traffickers used to find people out in the real world,” Erin Williamson, the vice president of global programs and strategy of Love 146.
Love 146 is a New Haven-based anti-trafficking organization.
Nearly every kid has a phone these days, and Williamson said social media has allowed predators to cast a wider net and get uncomfortably close to kids.
“We are seeing Facebook as being one of the more popular platforms for predators to have, what I would call their first contact with their victims,” Williamson said.
A predator may employ a simple search, Williamson said, explaining that it’s like fishing.
“If you go on to Facebook and type in ‘Jessica Smith,’ you’ll get a whole list of kids and some adults, but it is very easy for a predator to look at that list and identify who’s an adult and who’s a kid and it’s easy for them to friend request anyone named Jessica Smith who looks like a kid,” she explained.
If you talk with your kids, there’s a good chance they’ve had these random requests.
“Some kids are going to have had talks with their parents and had internet safety at school and might not accept that friend request, but there are going to be some that do accept that friend request and that predator only needs one or two kids to accept a friend request and then go and friend request all of their friends,” she added.
Williamson warns that just one person opening that window to a stranger could have a ripple effect.
“A couple of kids are going to say, well they’re friends with Jessica Smith, they must be safe,” she said.
Another way predators start that fishing expedition is through shared interests.
“Finding some commonality with them,” Sgt. Jason Saccente explained.
He’s the Newington Police Dept. Human Trafficking liaison.
It’s a big enough problem in Connecticut, where the Newington Police Department has a human trafficking liaison.
Sgt. Saccente said the ways people find “commonality” these days is through hashtags.
“That’s called the scouting phase. They’re scouting for their victims,” Saccente said.
Hashtags for your favorite artist, your school, they’re all innocent enough, but experts say it’s how traffickers can find our kids and start a conversation.
“They just start attacking it and manipulating them and saying, ‘hey, I know you like this concert’,” Saccente added.
If you’re a parent, there are certain kinds of conversations to watch for.
“’Oh my gosh, you play soccer, I used to play soccer when I was at your high school’,” Williamson explained is one tactic.
She went on to say, “They’ll go to a middle school or high school and they’ll see who’s connected to that, who says they attend.”
Williamson has seen cases where traffickers will Google the names of teachers in an attempt to connect that way.
“’Do you have Mr. So and So, is he still there? He was there when I went to your middle school’,” Williamson added.
If this happens to your child, experts say parents need to tread carefully.
It’s unrealistic to think our children won’t be on social media, so before you give your child a device, make an agreement that phone checks will happen.
“You check that phone pretty regularly because that’s when they’re testing things out and learning,” Williamson said.
She added that it boils down to trust and communication, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and be firm.
“Who are you talking to, what’s happening, what are you doing? Sometimes kids are not going to want to talk with you and be totally honest, but if you start these conversations young, you make them normal,” she said.
She’s also seen how conversations get more personal.
“If a kid is continuing to talk with somebody and continuing to share, they’ll often share something that reveals a vulnerability,” Williamson said.
For example, she says that vulnerability could be anything from bad grades, secret crushes, to a child’s sexuality.
“They won’t share things with their real-world friends because they’re afraid of being teased or bullied, or they’ve never told anyone this before,” Williamson said.
Once the predator has obtained that “secret,” Williamson said it’s only a matter of time before they’ll leverage it.
“’I’m friends with 52 people who go to your school, if you don’t send me the photo that I want, if you don’t come and meet me where I want you to come and meet me then that secret you told me, I’m going to tell all the kids and make sure it spreads around the school’,” she gave as an example.
So young minds are confronted with two awful scenarios.
“Either I do everything this individual is asking of me or the consequences of the secret that I shared with that individual is so grave, it would tear my family apart, that’s a heavy weight for a kid,” she added.
That’s how it starts, and experts say it can end with victims being extorted into prostitution. They’re not necessarily taken from the street and smuggled.
“We’re finding the vast majority are adults, just barely over the age of 18, some below that,” Saccente said.
He said worldwide, trafficking is a $150 billion business and it’s here.
“People are making in a year’s time, over $300,000 tax free, on one victim, if they work 315 days a year. And that’s a Connecticut case,” Saccente said.
He said some victims cooperate and help police trace back to how it started.
“We’re learning that social media. They are just games on the internet, dating websites,” he said.
While many believe this could never happen to them or their child, Channel 3 did speak with two random teen sisters who can confirm that “fishing process” of strangers reaching out through social media is something that happens a lot.
“We get like the request for DMs, so it’s uncomfortable,” said Isabella Barber.
Williamson said social media has really changed everything.
Predators can have online conversations with hundreds of kids at one time when previously, they had to connect in person.
When it comes to protecting your child, Williamson preaches monitoring.
“I’m going to have your password to your phone,” she explained.
She also asks for understanding.
“Oftentimes we’re blaming kids, or blaming the wrong kid, for something someone else did and that makes these kids really scared to disclose that their photo is out there, their secret is out there and they need help from adults,” she added.
Experts say another thing parents need to monitor are video games.
Talking to strangers on headsets is very common with these games and experts say predators have been known to reach out and make connections that way.