RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Give a child or teenager some free time and chances are they are going to spend a lot of it in front of a screen.
Posts, tweets, likes, shares, snaps – social media is their world and there are no boundaries.
“The problem with that is once the kid gets on those applications, they don’t necessarily know who they’re talking to,” explained Special Agent John Letterhos.
Letterhos is part of an FBI task force in Charlotte that tracks down predators looking to sexually exploit children online.
“It happens all the time,” said Letterhos.
In the social media world, more followers and friends means more popularity. So it’s easy for kids to connect with complete strangers.
Strangers they believe are their age.
Predators populate social media pages with pictures of teenagers they are representing as themselves.
They’re able to have conversations about everyday things kids would discuss.
From there they start the manipulation in a process the FBI calls “grooming.”
“It’s telling kids what they want to hear and maybe things they don’t hear every single day. How pretty they are, how smart they are, how handsome, how good they are at school. Once they gain the trust of that child, they end of taking it a step further and that’s when they start asking for pictures and videos of these kids naked,” Letterhos said.
Images you may think your child would never take but Letterhos said he sees thousands of them every day.
“‘I don’t think my kid would ever do it.’ That’s the same quote every kid and every parent that’s been a victim of this has said. Every single one,” said Letterhos. “They’re going to typically blackmail these kids or sextort these kids to send them more pictures and the threats are going to be: ‘Well I have these pictures already of you, I’m going to post those pictures online to you Facebook or Instagram friends and family if you don’t send me more pictures.'”
Last year, CBS North Carolina highlighted the risks of sextortion. You can watch that special report here.
For most children and teens, there’s not much worse than public embarrassment. So many give in.
And one North Carolina case shows just how far reaching this crime can be.
“This ‘female’ was grooming this little 12-year-old boy. He believed he was really chatting with a 17- or 18-year-old girl,” Letterhos explained. “Within a couple of exchanges on Kik, he was sending nude pictures. They ended up tracing that ‘female’ back to be 26-year-old Patrick Killen from Miami.”
The FBI said he had close to 800 victims.
“It’s a huge, growing problem,” said 1st Sgt. Tammy Mozingo with the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office. “We’ve actually had six this year that have been arrested.”
Mozingo helps track down registered sex offenders in who are banned by state law from using any social media site.
“We have had a couple of them that were talking with children and trying to meet them and stuff like that which is a huge problem, especially when they’re already a registered sex offender,” Mozingo said.
Some sites have clear rules against registered offenders using them but predators are tricky.
“I think it would be naive to think that just because Instagram or Facebook says people can’t be on there, that they’re not going to be on there,” said Letterhos.
“They hardly ever use their real name. Normally they use a fake name,” said Mozingo.
It’s a vulnerability the FBI will tell you is growing as fast social media itself.
The criminals can be caught, but once pictures are sent the damage can’t always be fixed.
“As much as the kids want to believe and the parents want to believe that they can get rid of those things online, once it’s out there is nothing they can do about it. You’ve already posted them we can’t get it back. Local and federal law enforcement are fighting the problem every day, but it’s not something that’s easily talked about. So they say start talking about it.
Mozingo said the unknown number of these types of cases is “astronomical.”
“It’s sad,” said Mozingo.
“There’s huge number of these that are greatly underreported, and the kids just want it to go away the parents often just want it to go away so we’re getting some of them but by no means are we getting all of them,” Letterhos said.
The FBI provided these tips to parents to help keep you child safe on social media:
- Keep devices with a camera out of your child’s bedroom. Letterhos says most of the pictures they find when they arrest a predator are taken in a bedroom.
- Know your child’s social media passwords
- Don’t allow you child to “friend,” “follow,” or “add” anyone they do not personally know
- Look out for someone who starts to communicate with your child using a more public social media app (like Facebook or Instagram) and then asks them to move to a more private app (like Kik)
- Talk to your child about predators
- Report any suspicious activity