However, when it comes to protecting our kids from online predators, parents could be missing the mark.
From cellphones to tablets and laptops to smart watches, technology is a huge part of daily life, making it easy for online predators lurking behind computer screens to prey on kids.
The Greeley Police Department’s Investigations Persons Unit is comprised of four detectives who work full time investigating reports of crimes against adults as well as child abuse, sex assaults on children, child pornography, enticement and other crimes against children. Sgt. Dennis Lobato, a member of the unit, said their work has become more complex in recent years.
“Child victims, unfortunately, are rampant and too many for us,” Lobato said. “What these detectives do on a daily basis is way more than what they would have to do five years ago — you can imagine how information changes, technology changes, laws change.”
As students of all ages have had to transition to online learning due to the pandemic, the unit’s case numbers over the past year have spiked.
“I think it was interesting for all of us. We were used to the daily grind, everything’s kind of the same. But then the kids stopped going to school,” Detective Leslie Schmidt-Johnson explained. “I felt like my case assignments dropped for a little while since they weren’t in school and teachers weren’t making mandatory reports. But then all of a sudden this influx started to happen, and it’s been steady ever since.”
The unit gets cases one of three ways: a parent makes a report; a teacher, counselor or other mandatory reporter files a report; or information is forwarded from the Internet Crimes Against Children, a Colorado Springs-based state task force that specializes in getting information about such crimes and divvying it out to the respective task force in the state.
The internet gives predators a broader reach
One of the cases Schmidt-Johnson worked involved an out-of-area online predator who was posing on the popular social media platform Snapchat as a therapist.
“He was talking to thousands of kids and identifying ones that were going to be good victims,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “Ones that actually had trauma.”
Schmidt-Johnson posed as a 14-year-old and became a potential victim of the predator. Her experience with the case was nothing short of shocking as the predator manipulated and groomed what he thought was a teenager.
“He was a really scary guy. He tried to manipulate me and some of the other detectives as well,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “He had an alter ego of a child who was the same age who had cancer, and he used that alter ego to connect with girls and make them feel bad for him.”
Imposing dominance, using grooming tactics like promises of money or taking them to dinner and acting like someone else are some of the common characteristics Lobato and Schmidt-Johnson see in online predators.
“They tend to initially come off as very nice and kind, and then that can change once they’ve figured out how they can manipulate the child into doing what they want,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “They always tend to be agreeable to suck you in and make you think that they are this nice person. But then later they change and you’re too far in.”
While Schmidt-Johnson is an adult trained to handle whatever online predators throw her way, she admitted her experience with the out-of-area predator case “stressed her out” with the demands the man was giving her.
“To think that a 13- or 14-year-old child is in that situation, I can’t imagine what they’d be thinking,” she said. “Of course they are going to do what he said, they are terrified.”
“Which is weird because they are captive, and this person is not even in the room,” Lobato added.
Predators are typically men across all age ranges, and the victims are usually girls ages 12-15, Schmidt-Johnson said. Lobato compares the process to which online predators find their victims to fishing.
“As you do that, they learn their own way of ‘How can I use this tactic against this type of person?’” Lobato said. “So basically they are figuring out how to get the best victim for my purposes.”
Many times online predators will throw out specific questions for answers that will help them dictate their next move.
Interactions between predators and their victims aren’t just limited to online.
Schmidt-Johnson worked a case where the predator set up a meeting at the Greeley Mall with what he thought was a 14-year-old girl and her friend. The predator told Schmidt-Johnson that he wanted to take them to a hotel.
“He stopped at a convenience store on the way and did all these things to prepare for the meeting,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “He thought I was 14, and my friend was 13.”
The unit was able to intercept the predator and arrest him.
When talking crosses the line
While talking with an underage person isn’t illegal, there is a fine line that has to be crossed in order for the situation to become a crime.
“For an individual to be talking to me, and I’m 14 and they are 50, is not illegal,” Schmidt-Johnson explained. “Where it become illegal is where plans start to be made to meet for sexual things, where requests are made for explicit photos. If those photos are sent, if the meet takes place, that just enhances the severity of it.”
Many times the talking is coupled with photos.
“Let’s face it, unfortunately our society, our culture is image-oriented,” Lobato said. “It’s like you’re almost not normal if you don’t send a picture to somebody. And we’re just talking about pictures, not what these guys are asking for.”
With new apps constantly being developed, law enforcement and child protection agencies have to stay on their toes and in the loop. The Child Rescue Coalition, CRC, a nonprofit that works to protect children from sexual abuse by building and providing technology to law enforcement agencies free of charge, keeps on top of new apps through news sites and their relationships with law enforcement agencies.
Glen Pounder, chief operating officer of the coalition, said they share what information they believe to be most helpful to parents without sensationalizing or causing unnecessary fear.
“Parents do not need to learn every new technology or app, but the protective principals and what the dangers of any particular new app are,” Pounder said.
CRC highlights the newest apps and social media sites for parents on the organization’s blog.
“Virtually any app or social media site that has a chat ability or a way to communicate with the other people, we’re going to get a case that involves that,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “There’s even websites that are anonymous so it doesn’t ask you your name or anything, and you can post whatever you want and talk to other people. And there’s no way for us to find out who the other individual on the other side is.”
Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the three main sites predators utilize when looking for potential victims, according to Schmidt-Johnson.
The uniquely frightening thing about online predators is that law enforcement may never know who the predators are or where they are located.
“It’s a process, and sometimes there’s situations to where you don’t have the information to lead you to who’s behind that computer screen,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “But there are ways. If they are using a social media site or an app that they had to put some sort of information into, those sites or apps will capture that information like IP addresses that we can look in to.”
Even if law enforcement are able to track down an IP address, proving who was actually the person using that computer is difficult, not to mention predators who use unsecured internet connections like at a library or coffee house.
In addition to talking with their children and teens about online safety, parents can: purchase apps that can block kids from having access to certain sites or apps like Tik Tok, Instagram and Twitter; adjust computer settings to flag keywords; set restrictions on the hours kids can use their computers and smart phones; and go through their kids’ phones, tablets and computers once a week.
“I’m a big advocate for parents being involved, just pay attention,” Schmidt-Johnson said. “We all are busy, and we all have jobs, but if they are online, go over and see what they are doing. Just pay attention and be a little more involved in this digital age we are living in.”
Government regulations protect children’s privacy
While parents play a large part in keeping their children safe from online predators, the federal government does have some safety measures in place.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, or COPPA, was enacted in 1998 by the Federal Trade Commission to enforce regulations regarding children’s online privacy. The goal of COPPA is to allow parents to have control over what information is collected from their children online.
COPPA imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services directed to children under 13 years old as well as on operators of other websites or online services that have actual knowledge that they have collected personal information online from a child under the age of 13.
Some of the information COPPA protects includes:
- A child’s first and last name
- Home or other physical address
- Online contact information, including a screen name or username
- Telephone numbers
- Social security number
- A photograph, video or audio file that contains the child’s image or voice
Since the organization was founded in 2013, it has identified 71 million unique IP addresses worldwide that share and download sexually explicit images and videos of children.
A new bill introduced this past month in the U.S. House of Representatives called the PROTECT Kids Act proposes several ways to beef up online security for children by:
- Raising the age of parental consent protections from children under the age of 13 up to children under the age of 16.
- Adding precise geolocation information and biometric information as two new categories of personal information which are protected under COPPA.
- Affirming that rules under COPPA also include protections to children on mobile applications in addition to already existing rules for websites and online services.
- Providing parents the ability to delete any personal information about their child, a feature never afforded to parents under COPPA.
- Requiring the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a study on the knowledge standard found in COPPA and report recommendations to Congress.
While the bill would help protect children and teens against online predators, Pounder doesn’t believe it goes “anywhere near far enough.”
“It seems to be still focused on children’s privacy and on the underlying problem of the digital world we all live in,” Pounder said.
Pounder and CRC would like to see minimum industrywide standards implemented that tech companies must conform to under penalty of criminal prosecution for corporate executives.
“This is no different to what the financial industry must do to combat money laundering,” Pounder said. “If you operate an online platform, then you must have processes, technologies and procedures in place to protect your customers, or users.”
Other protection standards Pounder and CRC would like to see added to the bill include:
- Blocking of known child sexual abuse material before it is uploaded to online platforms, with a separate organization, independent of the technology industry, established to ensure accuracy and accountability.
- Comprehensive reforms of digital identity so that when someone does something online, such as groom a child or send pictures of their genitals, they also know that their identity is being shared.
- Implementation of substantial fines for noncompliance with industry standards such as 15% of annual turnover or $25 million dollars, whichever is greater.
- Protection of children automatically incorporated into what platforms do by design and default, rather than as an afterthought.
- United States law enforcement agencies partnering with international liaison officers to share information on predators.
Pounder and CRC would also like to see fusion centers, or agencies that provide resources, expertise and information to detect, prevent and respond to criminal and terrorist activity, be required to have tech industry representatives to allow the rapid sharing of information and intelligence across the U.S. and around the world.
“This is not an off-the-wall idea; it has been done already in cybercrime,” Pounder said. “The reason, in my opinion, why this has not happened yet in child protection is because child protection is not a threat to the tech industries’ revenue streams.”
If your child or a child you know may be a victim of an online predator, don’t hesitate to contact your local law enforcement agency for help. Even if you just have a question about internet safety, many police departments are willing to help.
For more information on how to protect your children and teens from online predators, check out the following sites: