FBI Article: Child Predators – The Online Threat Continues to Grow

It is rare that I republish a full article, but this one written by the FBI meets the criteria.  I do not believe in fear mongering, and do not support those who would have you believe that dozens of sexual predators have singled out your child and are but a single mouse click away from harming them at this very moment. Nor do I support those who want to stick their head in the sand and pretend that the sexual predation of minors online is a rarity – my own experiences with cases tells me otherwise.

What I do believe, and encourage you to stay vigilant about is that predators are online – sexual and other types of physical harm predators, emotional predators, financial predators, identity predators, and reputational predators. I believe that the most devastating crimes are those of sexual exploitation, and I believe that all youth are susceptible to sexual predation at some times, and that those who are particularly vulnerable are susceptible a great deal of the time. Below are two blogs I’ve written recently about child sexual exploitation:

In the FBI’s article, and in the accompanying video, some of the advice to parents is a little outdated, but I do not question their in-the-trenches first hand dealings with child sexual predators, or the statistics they cite from their work. It is a sobering read, but a necessary read, not only for parents, but for those who would build online services for youth.

We need to demand from service providers that they build products in such a way as to minimize the risks consumers face and maximize their company’s ability to identify predatory behavior and act swiftly to prevent exploitation and help convict the guilty.

Here then is the full FBI article, plus the video blog by the FBI Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry:

FBI Article: Child Predators – The Online Threat Continues to Grow

It’s a recipe for trouble: naive teenagers, predatory adults, and a medium—the Internet—that easily connects them.

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that pedophiles are everywhere online,” said Special Agent Greg Wing, who supervises a cyber-squad in the Chicago Field Office.

When a young person visits an online forum for a popular teen singer or actor, Wing said, “Parents can be reasonably certain that online predators will be there.” It is believed that more than half a million pedophiles are online every day. (Note:  According to the video blog by FBI Executive Assistant Director Shawn Henry, the number of online predators is 750,000.)

Agents assigned to our Innocent Images National Initiative are working hard to catch these child predators and to alert teens and parents about the dark side of the Internet—particularly when it comes to social networking sites and, increasingly, online gaming forums.

Pedophiles go where children are. Before the Internet, that meant places such as amusement parks and zoos. Today, the virtual world makes it alarmingly simple for pedophiles—often pretending to be teens themselves—to make contact with young people.

Even without being someone’s “friend” online, which allows access to one’s social networking space, pedophiles can see a trove of teenagers’ personal information—the town they live in, the high school they attend, their favorite music and TV programs—because the youngsters often post it for anyone to see.

“The younger generation wants to express themselves, and they don’t realize how vulnerable it makes them,” Wing said.

For a pedophile, that personal information is like gold and can be used to establish a connection and gain a child’s trust.

There are basically two types of pedophiles on the Internet—those who seek face-to-face meetings with children, and those who are content to anonymously collect and trade child pornography images.

Those seeking face-to-face meetings create bogus identities online, sometimes posing as teenagers. Then they troll the Internet for easy victims—youngsters with low self-esteem, problems with their parents, or a shortage of money. The pedophile might find a 14-year-old girl, for example, who has posted seemingly harmless information on her space for anyone to see. The pedophile sends a message saying he goes to high school in a nearby town and likes the same music or TV shows she likes.

Then the pedophile cultivates a friendly online relationship that investigators call “grooming.” It could continue for days or weeks before the pedophile begins bringing up sexual topics, asking for explicit pictures or for a personal meeting. By that time an emotional connection has been made—and pedophiles can be master manipulators. Even if an actual meeting never takes place, it is important to note that youngsters can be victimized by such sexually explicit online contact.

Even worse than posting personal information for anyone to see is the fact that many youngsters will accept “friends” who are total strangers. “Nobody wants to just have five friends online,” Wing said. “It’s a popularity thing.”

Special Agent Wesley Tagtmeyer, a veteran cyber investigator in our Chicago office who works undercover during online investigations, said that in his experience, about 70 percent of youngsters will accept “friend” requests regardless of whether they know the requester.

Tagtmeyer and other cyber investigators say a relatively new trend among pedophiles is to begin grooming youngsters through online gaming forums, some of which allow two-way voice and video communication. Parents who might be vigilant about monitoring their children’s Internet activity often have no idea that online video gaming platforms can pose a threat.

“Parents need to talk to their children about these issues,” he said. “It’s no longer enough to keep computers in an open area of the house so they can be monitored. The same thing needs to be done with online gaming platforms.”


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