During this time of isolation when children are spending more time online, predators will also be spending more time online, targeting children through the various social media platforms, gaming platforms, and other apps.
Hope for Justice has developed some information to keep children and teens safe online while at home during the COVID-19 crisis.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumblr are microblogging apps where users are able to post short text and video messages. Users also utilize instant messaging and group chats to share information and chat with others.
Other apps, such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and Tik Tok, allow users to share, edit, and tag people in photographs and videos.
All of these platforms allow private messaging between users, and children may develop a false sense of security with the individuals they are communicating with online.
Predators will target youths who are vulnerable by searching for online posts that describe personal struggles, relationship problems, and family problems. Predators will collect information from pictures and posts and then begin to communicate with their victim by sharing a sympathetic post or words of encouragement.
Predators will appear to be concerned about the youth’s problems and will build common themes with children. This is the beginning of the “grooming” process which predators adopt to develop trafficking targets. Once the grooming process begins, youths will develop a false sense of security with the so-called ‘friend’ they are communicating with online.
Predators will develop a false relationship with children, and will use rewards available through the apps, or online gift cards, to help strengthen the relationship.
Apps such as Whatsapp, WeChat, Viber and GroupMe are Wi-Fi capable messaging apps that allow users to communicate with each other without requiring internet provided services. These apps also allow group chat rooms which predators will monitor to search for potential victims. Chat rooms are also utilized to buy, share, and trade pictures of victims among predators.
Once a relationship is established, predators will attempt to get the youth to use more secure means to communicate and will emphasize the need for secrecy between them. Vault apps could be used to hide pictures, videos and messages that are shared between the predator and youth. These apps, such as Fake calculator, Calculator+, Secret photo vault and Private photo vault, can be accessed after a secret code is entered.
Online gaming is also very popular with youths, and predators will play games to build relationships.
After building relationships with the youth, predators will offer to buy ‘loot boxes’ or send in-game currency to show affection and compassion.
This is another way predators build trust during the grooming process.
Parents can be proactive by ensuring their children stay safe online.
Helpful tips include:
-Teach children boundaries online, and to never share personal information with anyone they do not know personally
-Make sure they know never to send pictures of themselves or family members
-Play games with your children. Know who they are communicating with through the games
-Encourage children to keep conversation solely about the games they are playing with other players, and not to engage on a deeper level
-Set parental controls. Step-by-step instructions for setting these up are available at www.internetmatters.orgInstall a Wi-Fi filtering system on your devices
-Check devices regularly to see who children are communicating with
-Teach kids why sexual content in games is harmful and what to do if they encounter it
-Teach kids about body safety boundaries, and be clear that the rules apply to anyone of any age, even their friends
-Teach kids to respect other kids’ body safety boundaries.
Hope for Justice Investigators are working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to keep children safe from predatory human traffickers.
If you have any concerns that your child is being groomed by a predator online, please contact your local law enforcement agency or contact the Hope for Justice Investigative Hub on 615-630-1739 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.