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Online predator threat increases during pandemic

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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Distance learning is meant to keep kids safe from COVID-19, but experts are reminding parents of the dangers lurking on the internet.

Since the start of the pandemic, pedophiles, sextortionists, scammers and other criminals have been very active on social networks, messaging apps and online games, putting kids at increased risk during this already difficult time.

Innocent Lives Foundation is a national nonprofit that works closely with law enforcement agencies across the U.S. to unmask online predators using Open Source Intelligence.

IFL tracks and locates online predators and has turned in 141 online predators this year. Last year, that number was at 86.

“COVID has definitely caused a surge in child sexual abuse material being traded online,” said Samantha Gamble, predator identification team coordinator for IFL.

Internet service providers indicate internet use overall is up 30% due to the pandemic.

“Predators are realizing that and capitalizing on that,” Gamble said. “They know that, ‘Okay, kids are going to be online and their parents are working. They’re busy. And okay, the schools might be giving them laptops, but those schools may not know how to actually secure those laptops.’”

Today’s sophisticated predators have a growing arsenal of tools and tricks, including fake personas designed to help them elude parental detection and con their way into a child’s life-a dangerous process known as “grooming.”

It's important that parents tell their kids not to share personal information online such as addresses, phone numbers or pictures of themselves or friends. 

“That might actually have a key indicator in the background of where they actually hang out,” Gamble said. For example, taking a picture at a park may tell online predators which park the children frequent. 

Parents should also make sure their kids are only clicking on links and visiting websites coming from their teacher.

Gamble says you should have an age-appropriate conversation with your child about the dangers on the internet. For younger children, the conversation should be geared towards discussing and establishing healthy personal boundaries.

“Not just the whole ‘stay away from stranger danger’ but ‘this is my body, I respect everything and I don’t know you,’” Gamble said.

With older children, the conversation can be more in-depth.

“First things first, they’re probably just going to go, ‘Oh, Mom, Dad, you’re being crazy, that’s not going to happen to me,’” Gamble said. “But keep having those conversations...I firmly believe that if you introduce these kinds of dangers at a younger age, they’ll know more of what to look for.”

Gamble says you shouldn’t be afraid of your child perceiving you as the crazy parent because they may not understand the “why” behind your concern.

The best thing you can do is develop open communication and a trusting relationship with them through your approach with hard conversations such as these. 

Children should be aware if a stranger on the internet begins asking for more details, especially about their problems. Once a stranger identifies these problems, they can begin pretending to identify with these problems as a means of building trust. Children may develop a friendship with someone they believe to be another child.

An unhealthy friendship may form that begins with asking for selfies and eventually develops into asking the child for risque pictures. Some predators receive these photos from unsuspecting children and sell them online. There are entire websites dedicated to selling access to child pornographic material.

“Once the kid sends that photograph, the predator may take advantage of that and say, ‘I’m not actually a child. I’m an adult. And I’m going to send this to your parents and your family if you don’t send anything further.”

This is a technique known as sextortion. Children should let their parents know immediately if this situation has happened to them. The predator is counting on the child feeling too embarrassed and afraid of ramifications to show their parents.

It is important to build a trusting relationship with your child to ensure your child feels comfortable talking to you and will approach you about these situations. Gamble says the worst thing a parent can do is shame a child and make them feel stupid for what they’ve done. She says you should put your initial anger and/or judgement on a shelf before speaking with your child.

“Remember that these kids are humans too. Be empathetic with what they’re going through, and understanding,” Gamble said.

Not all strangers online are predators and oftentimes, normal teenage conversations online may sound like grooming. It is important to be aware of the tricks predators use to make themselves indistinguishable from genuine online friends.

Trying to get you to take pictures or to get you away from your friends are some red flags.

“Another one would be to actually send you gifts.” Gamble said. “Oftentimes, predators will try to build trust by sending either in-game currency or even as far as cell phones and gaming consoles. Anytime somebody you don’t know is offering you a gift online? No, just stop the conversation right there.”

One gaming site or app isn’t worse than another because predators try to hide in any place where children tend to chat with one another; any place online where you can openly talk to people you don’t actually know.

Some sites Gamble mentioned include Fortnite, Instagram, SnapChat, Minecraft, and Roblox. Gamble says this doesn’t mean you should stop your kids from using these types of apps or games.

“It’s very natural for children to want to play games, especially with their friends,” Gamble said.

Parents should watch for signs, such as kids who may be acting more distant, spending more time on their devices, hiding in their room more often, or are reluctant to disclose who they are conversing with online.

If you notice your kids showing these signs of potentially being groomed online, Gamble advises to start asking exploratory questions in a curious manner such as, “What are you interested in these days? Who are you talking to? What are you talking about?” She says it’s important not to come off as accusatory or assuming they’ve done something wrong. It gives parents an opportunity to investigate further and be aware of their children’s online activity.

Gamble encourages parents to have open communication with their kids about dangers online and what to watch out for, monitor online chats and make a rule for devices to be kept in public spaces such as a living room or family room. She also encourages parents to take devices away at night.

Gamble says not to secretly install a monitoring app because this may make children feel as though they’re being spied on.

“Go in understanding that you’re device is going to be monitored and it’s not to get you in trouble, it’s because we want to make sure that you’re safe,” Gamble said.

You can visit the Innocent Lives Foundation's guide to keeping your kids safe online here.

Guides on how to secure and monitor your child's iPhone can be viewed here.

Guides on how to secure and monitor your child's Android device can be viewed here.

You should also try to get to know and understand their friends and be aware of any red flags. Gamble advises having a conversation with their friends’ parents about online rules and activities is important.

“Obviously you can’t tell somebody how to parent,” Gamble said. “But you can at least establish a connection of, ‘hey, this is what my child understands. This is what is appropriate in our household.’ And if it’s not a match, then maybe that’s not somebody you want your child to hang out with because you can’t guarantee their safety.”

Gamble says it can be helpful to teach your child about the warning signs of a predator and giving them the power to warn their friends if they see something suspicious happening online.

Education / Idaho / Idaho Falls / Local News / News / Top Stories
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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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