July 7, 2014

Summertime Tips for Keeping Kids Safe From Predators

GRAND RAPIDS, MI—Summer is here, and children around the country are spending more time online and unsupervised. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan, the FBI, and the Michigan State Police recommend that this is the ideal time to talk to kids about the dangers of online predators, sex trafficking, and other risks that arise for kids with additional free time and access to the Internet during the summer months.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles says, “My office puts a high priority on aggressively prosecuting those who produce and distribute Internet child pornography and exploit children sexually. Despite significant potential federal sentences – for example, five to 20 years in prison for receiving and distributing child pornography – pedophiles and child predators still use social media and the Internet as their primary child pornography marketplace.”

U.S. Attorney Miles notes that “Child predators will find any way they can to contact kids, gain their trust, and exploit them. Summer poses a particular risk because children spend more time unsupervised. Now that smart phones put the Internet directly into kids’ hands, it is much harder for parents to exert the kind of supervision they once had over the shared family computer or house landline telephone.”

“The danger posed by online predators has the potential to pose real-life harm toward adolescent victims,” said Paul Abbate, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI Detroit Field Office. “Those who attempt to exploit children online often use coercion, fear, and sometimes threats of violence to commit these crimes. As we enjoy the summer months, and our children spend more time outside of normal adult supervision, it is important for parents to remember that the children being victimized by online predators don’t live in some faraway place, outside of our everyday lives. Unfortunately, these are far too often our children—in our communities—and we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect them from those who would do them harm.”

Protecting Children from Online Predators:

Predators target children of every background. One in seven children reports receiving sexual solicitations online. Seventy percent of those are girls. Fifteen percent of teens ages 12-17 who own a cell phone say they have received sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images of someone they know via text message. Four percent of teens ages 12-17 who own a cell phone admit to sending sexually suggestive nude/semi-nude images to others via text message. Parents should monitor children’s online activity closely, and although children feel that their online life is private, they need to know it is anything but and is more permanent than they think.

Some predators are in positions of trust and authority over kids, while others are strangers. Predators meet children on social media, chat rooms, and Internet-based video games, among other places. All of these activities present opportunities for predators to gain children’s trust and groom them for eventual sexual conduct. Predators sometimes use a false identity, posing as other children or using a fake name to develop a friendship with a child. The predator may even establish social media accounts under that false identity to provide an additional sense of legitimacy. Predators often advance the relationship to text message or live video chat and encourage kids to send sexually explicit photos or videos. By that time, the child may have developed a certain level of trust in the offender that makes the child less likely to report the activity and more likely to keep the activity a secret at the request of the offender.

Here are a few Internet safety tips to discuss with your children:

  • Only “friend” and connect to people online that you know personally and delete those you do not know personally;
  • Set social media security settings so that only confirmed friends and connections can see what you are posting;
  • Never take a picture of yourself or write anything by text, e-mail, or social media that you would not want everyone in the world to see;
  • Immediately delete and never forward a picture of anyone doing something sexual;
  • Choose screen names and usernames that are appropriate;
  • Never post publicly or give anyone your phone number, e-mail address, or home address unless you know them personally;
  • Be aware that anyone you meet online may not be who they say they are; and
  • Immediately tell a parent or trusted adult if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation online, even if you are afraid that things have already gone too far.

Find other tips for how to talk to kids about online predators, limits for what to reveal online, cyberbullying, and other Internet safety topics here:

U.S. Attorney Miles also indicates that families may be in the best position to identify the warning signs of illicit computer use by adults and teens at home. Some warning signs include:

  • an excessive amount of computer use, often when others are out of the house or sleeping;
  • multiple computers, some of which are password protected or only used by one person in the home;
  • peer-to-peer programs downloaded onto the desktop including Ares, Limewire, and others;
  • cell phone security programs that hide a person’s photos from casual view by others;
  • multiple e-mail addresses, including one using false names;
  • various USB thumb drives and external hard drives, especially if the person hides them or is reluctant to leave them unattended;
  • lack of desire or motivation to seek employment or activities outside the house or away from the computer; and
  • unfamiliar or inexplicable contacts stored on video chat programs such as Skype or Face Time.

U.S. Attorney Miles adds that it is important to note that not everyone involved in child pornography establishes in-person relationships with children, so families should not rule out possible child pornography trading just because a person does not interact with children in daily life. Anyone who suspects illicit computer use should report the activity to law enforcement for further investigation.

Protecting Children from Sex Trafficking:

Not all predators rely on the Internet. Even in West Michigan, sex trafficking and child exploitation exist.

Families, teachers, hotel workers, convenience store employees, and students are in the best position to identify potential child sex trafficking activity. While children of every background can be lured into prostitution, some warning signs of child sex trafficking include:

  • lack of organized afterschool/summer activities and supervision;
  • running away (not necessarily overnight);
  • recent friendship/attention between a teenager and an older adult who may drive the teen places or provide a place to stay overnight;
  • tension and fighting at home;
  • new clothing, nails, and hair styles (for girls) generally outside the financial reach of a teen;
  • new cell phone not purchased by parent/guardian;
  • checking in at a hotel with no luggage or sneaking into a hotel through a side door;
  • drug/alcohol dependency; and
  • low self-esteem.

As part of the Innocence Lost Initiative – a collaboration among the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI, and the Department of Justice – 3,100 child victims of sex trafficking were recovered nationwide from 2003 to 2013. The youngest was nine years old. In a 2013 national sting on child sex trafficking, Detroit ranked second-highest out of 76 cities in the number of child victims recovered.

Project Safe Childhood:

To address the growing concerns about child sexual exploitation in the digital age, the Department of Justice launched Project Safe Childhood in 2006. Project Safe Childhood expanded in 2011 to include sex trafficking of minors, crimes against children committed in Indian country, and failure to register as a sex offender.

The national initiative relies on partnerships with organizations including U.S. Attorneys’ Offices; federal investigative agencies; and state, local, tribal, and military law enforcement officials. Approximately 70 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces operate around the country for federal, state, and local law enforcement officers to collaborate in investigating online child exploitation.

Under Project Safe Childhood, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan prosecutes people who create, download, share, possess, and view child pornography. Federal sentences for these crimes are steep: up to 20 years for viewing and possessing child pornography, a mandatory minimum of five years and up to 20 years for downloading and sharing child pornography, and a mandatory minimum of 15 years and up to 30 years for producing child pornography. The penalties increase for each of those charges if the defendant has a prior sex offense conviction.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan also prosecutes those who seek to exploit children sexually by chatting online or arranging to meet children for sexual encounters. Federal sentences for those crimes are significant: 10 years to life for coercing or enticing a child for sex, 10 years to life for causing a child to travel out of state for sex, and up to 30 years for traveling to another state to have sex with a child. Defendants who traffic minors for prostitution face a mandatory minimum of 10 years and up to life in prison.

In 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for the Western District of Michigan successfully prosecuted the following cases, among others under Project Safe Childhood:

The FBI has recently formed the West Michigan Based Child Exploitation Task Force (WEBCHEX), a collaborative effort between the FBI and state and local law enforcement partners to combat the sexual exploitation of children across West Michigan. This task force will primarily focus on investigations of child abductions, child sex trafficking, interstate travelers for sex with minors, and producers and distributors of child pornography. The participating agencies include the Michigan State Police, Grand Rapids Police Department, Ionia County Sheriff’s Office, Allegan County Sheriff’s Office, and Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office. The task force also has the support of the United States Attorney’s Office and will coordinate prosecutions between federal and state prosecutors.

How to Report Child Exploitation:

If you suspect illegal activity involving child exploitation, contact law enforcement immediately. If a child is in imminent danger, call 911. Other resources for reporting these crimes include:

  • West Michigan Based Child Exploitation Task Force (WEBCHEX) at 616-456-5489;
  • Homeland Security Investigations, Grand Rapids, at 616-235-3936 (x. 2215); and
  • CyberTipline (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children).

To report a child missing and gain immediate assistance in launching a campaign to locate the child, or if you think you have seen a missing child, call 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).