Online predators target lonely kids looking to make friends

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– #1 Most Detrimental Crime Type: BEC/EAC Monetary Loss

— Total monetary loss: $3,032,789

— Number of victims: 78

— Average loss per victim: $38,882

– #2 Most Detrimental Type of Crime: Monetary Loss of Investment

— Total monetary loss: $2,390,809

— Number of victims: 27

— Average loss per victim: $88,548

– #3 Most Detrimental Type of Crime: Trust Fraud/Financial Loss of Love

— Total monetary loss: $2,126,196

— Number of victims: 130

— Average loss per victim: $16,355

Idaho’s prospective computer crimes law dates back to 1984, before many users even had computers for home use. Romance fraud, the third most damaging type of crime in the state, is overall the leading form of computer fraud in the country.

Starting a new school year can be an exciting time for children as they seek to make new friends, but federal investigators are warning parents that the desire to fit in can make children a prime target for predators in line.

Robert Hammer, who is the special agent in charge of homeland security investigations for the Pacific Northwest, said it had nothing to do with a child’s intelligence or personal character, and just dealing with criminals who have experience in gaining and exploiting children’s trust.

“Every child is at risk: boy, girl, parents, no parents, rich, poor, whatever,” Hammer said. “The predators are out there hanging around and looking for any opportunity to access these kids’ networks.”

Hammer said children are especially vulnerable when they enter a new school year or a new school entirely. He said they need to feel included or popular, so they add as many friends as possible to social media or online gaming platforms.

Those same kids are unlikely to check if they add real kids or teens to their social networks. Hammer said the predators knew this and would take advantage of it, creating their profile to look like another teenager.

“You might think it’s Timmy next door, but he’s actually some guy from Oklahoma in his parents’ basement,” Hammer said. “It’s these kinds of dangers and simple slip-ups that allow these predators to enter our children’s social networks.”

Once they got in, Hammer said online predators wouldn’t come out and immediately ask for an explicit photo or to meet, but would systematically groom the child to trust him and believe he wouldn’t. never anything to hurt him.

Hammer said they will segregate the children’s profiles, noting their likes, dislikes, activities, sports, special interests, friends and families, and use that information to connect with them and gain their trust. , often over a period of weeks or months.

According to Hammer, most of the cases that federal investigators handle in Washington state begin with this type of grooming and often end in child exploitation, child pornography and sextortion.

“We’re seeing a lot of people again hooking these kids into situations that they just can’t get out of,” Hammer said. “They get a compromising image of the kid, then they use that image to blackmail them into getting an endless number of images, videos.”

Hammer said they will continue to hold these images over the child’s head and threaten them with exposure if they don’t comply with their demands, including sending more explicit photos or meeting in person and possibly coercing them into engaging in sexual acts.

With access to the child’s personal information, predators can even include specific organizations or people they will send the images to in order to ensure that children believe their threats.

“‘I’m going to email Stephanie, Sally, Michelle from your volleyball team and show them these pictures if you don’t give me more pictures,'” Hammer said. “And because they’re able to individualize threats and coercion, they’re able to manipulate children even more.”

Over a period of time, Hammer said the feeling of being trapped, isolated and with no idea how to get out of the situation can have a profoundly negative impact on their mental health.

“We unfortunately see some children ending their lives because of the embarrassment and shame they think they’re going to have if these images come out,” Hammer said.

Hammer said investigators recently handled a case in Washington state involving a young boy who met a man online, was tricked into sending him photos and ultimately coerced into meeting the man at hotels.

Unbeknownst to the parents, this continued for some time until the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was made aware of the footage shared between them and passed the information on to federal investigators.

When officers arrived at the boy’s door to speak to his parents, Hammer said the boy knew why they were there and the shame he felt overwhelmed him.

” He hanged himself [the] bedroom as they interviewed, talking to parents downstairs,” Hammer said.

Hammer said the parents discovered the boy, screamed, and officers ran upstairs to put the boy down and resuscitate him. He said after months in hospital he is still alive but physical damage remains.

“But obviously the emotional scars will never go away,” Hammer said.

Hammer explained that the whole situation had an immense impact not only on the boy and his parents, but also on the officers who were sent there to help the boy and ended up witnessing what could have been his last. moments of his life without their intervention.

A child who is taken advantage of by an adult is not in this situation because he is a bad child or is not smart enough to avoid a bad situation. Hammer said they ended up being victims because the people targeting them were experienced and good at getting too close.

Hammer said he’s seen instances where the victim was a “good boy,” a straight college student who never got into trouble and had a good relationship with his family. None of this has stopped them from being targeted by online predators.

“You can’t be naive enough to think that just because you have a lot of money, you’re in a nice house, you’re a well-educated family, that the threat doesn’t apply to you,” Hammer said. . “It is a universal problem that threatens all children of all ages and in all households.

Hammer said that while parents can set limits on their children’s screen time, rules about when and where they can use electronic devices and tell them never to talk to strangers online, there’s no guarantee they’ll listen – especially if they’re not fully aware of the risks.

That’s why he said the best thing parents can do to try to prevent their child from ending up in a situation where a stranger takes advantage of them online is to have open and honest conversations with their children.

Hammer said that includes giving them real-life examples of sextortion, making sure they know the dangers they face, and asking them about their online interactions.

“Have you ever had anyone try to talk to you? Have you had any weird messages? Ask probing questions? said Hammer.

Hammer said it’s important to start having these conversations as soon as children have access to the Internet, electronic devices or gaming systems without constant parental supervision.

Resources are available to help parents have these conversations, including NetSmartz, a program run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Parents can also take advantage of available resources such as school counselors to help their children find ways to connect with others, gain the acceptance and sense of belonging they need without relying on online connections. .

Anyone who suspects that a child may be exploited online should contact the child’s school, local law enforcement, or the NCMEC hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST.

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