In an update to yesterday’ blog post 25 Men Arrested in Online Child Sex Sting, law enforcement officials are now focusing their efforts on the 80+ other men who responded to the sting’s online ads that were placed in social networking and e-commerce sites, including Craigslist.
“We didn’t just make this [the fake ads] up,” said Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons. There was no need to come up with ad content offering sex with 12- to 14-year-old boys and girls for their sting; officers simply reused sexual advertisements that they had seen on the Internet. Among the scenarios they copied were:
- Parents (or step parents) looking to arrange a first sexual encounter for their 12 year old daughter.
- A 19-year-old girl looking for a man to have a “hot night” with her and her 14-year-old sister.
- Teenagers under 15 looking to have sex.
- A sibling trying to set up a sexual encounter for a brother.
Simmons said he was stunned by the number of responses, “For every one who was arrested, we probably had four who were in communication with us.” Over a 100 men responded to their ads, 25 of whom showed up at the home leased for the sting where the men expected to meet and have sex with children.
The ads that generated the most responses were the ads from the 19-year-old girl looking for a man to have a “hot night” with her and her 14-year-old sister, and the Parents (or step parents) looking to arrange a first sexual encounter for their 12 year old daughter.
I was interviewed about this case this morning by Rob Williams on Pensacola’s News Radio 1620, and was asked if I was as stunned as the police chief, and what parents should do to protect their children.
Sadly no, I am not stunned that the investigation netted over a hundred child sexual predators, many within minutes of the ads being posted. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who receive notices of only a tiny fraction of the solicitation that occurs, they receive around 77 reports of online enticement per week[i] – and about 3,500 reports of child pornography per week.
In my own work with top internet companies and law enforcement teams, I’ve personally had to deal with far too many cases to be shocked by the number.
As for what parents can do to help protect their children, here’s the gist of my comments.
- Talk, Talk, Talk to your children. Start when kids are young, talk frequently, and make the conversation’s focus practical, not scary.
- Keep your perspective. Yes, there are sexual predators online, and yes they are trawling for targets, but they are not stalking every child every moment of the day or night. Only a fraction of youth will experience this kind of solicitation, but all children should be forearmed.
- Warning kids about ‘creepy strangers’ is off target. Predators look like anyone else. (You can link to see the photos of those arrested in the sting via my previous post).
- Instead of saying don’t let strangers talk to you about, or touch you… (which implies it’s ok if others do), say no one – not mommy, not daddy, not brother, not uncle, not family friend, no one – is allowed to make you feel uncomfortable, talk to you about your body, or touch you in private places.
- Leverage Family Safety Tools, and do your own checking in. Depending on the age and maturity of your child/teen, use family safety settings and tools (also called parental controls) that are transparent (so your child knows what’s being monitored) that can help detect potentially at-risk communications.
- Though Facebook is the most popular social networking site, it isn’t the best site for young teens – and it does not allow access for users under 13.
- Instead use one of the social networking sites that was actually designed with safety as a core principle from the ground up. You want a site that uses moderators and screening as these vastly decrease the likelihood that your child will be solicited by a predator – whether that be a sexual predator, an emotional predator, a physical predator, or a reputational predator.
- Listen, Listen, Listen to your children. Your kids won’t tell you about risks if you aren’t listening and being thoughtful.
- If you have a history of freaking out, taking away their internet access, etc. when they come to you about something, then you’ve taught them not to come to you. This increases their vulnerability as the very people they should be able to turn to have made themselves unusable.
- Build trust that you will be calm, listen, and find the right solution no matter what they bring to you.
- It is never the victim’s fault. God-forbid that any child should be abused, but statistics say a percentage of kids will experience sexual exploitation instigated either online, or offline. It is never their fault. As with all sexual crimes, there is only one person at fault— the predator.
- Sexual acts with minors are illegal and exploitive, and as a society, everyone must be committed to protecting minors, even when they act against their own best interests. Yes, they might have done things that put them at greater risk, but they are the victim, not the abuser.
- Understand that sexual predators frequently try to make a child believe that the abuse was the child’s fault or something they wanted because if the child feels guilty or ashamed they will be much less likely to report it. Predators may say, “You wouldn’t have contacted me if you didn’t want it,” or “I only did this because I thought it was what you wanted.”
- If a parent or authority figure says to an abused child or teen something like “What were you thinking?” or “What was your part in this?” the child or teen may see that as siding with the predator. If the adult in any way reinforces the predator’s message of guilt, they remove the last shreds of hope from the child that they will be believed, nurtured, and protected by those they need support from the most.
For more information on how to protect kids and teens from online exploitation see my instructions for Protecting Kids.
If you believe a child is being abused, or know an child abuser, don’t hesitate. Call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline 1-800-THE-LOST, use their website’s reporting tool or call your local law enforcement agency.
When cases like this come to light, it can be hard to remember that most people are good, decent and helpful.