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Hidden in Plain Sight: a Parent’s Guide to Teen Texting

One of the most common things that kids do with technology is send text messages. Even as far back as 2010, Pew Research reported that 72% of teens engaged in texting. And while some parents may review the messages sent on their kids’ phones, it’s all too easy to avoid leaving incriminating messages behind. One of the trickiest ways that they do this is by using “secret code words” that are really everyday words, but with hidden meanings. These messages look completely harmless, but have a darker meaning that is usually only known by teens.

One of the earliest ways that teens texted in code was using Leetspeak, a method of using similar looking letters and numbers. This is still used widely in social media apps to try to avoid online monitors, both human and automated, from identifying inappropriate words. For example:

The downside to this approach is that if someone happens to be looking over their shoulder and sees text like that, their mind notices it and it could cause them to ask questions that the teens don’t want to answer. By using everyday words with a meaning known only to them, the teens are less likely to bring unwanted attention to themselves.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Before you continue with this, please know that some of the examples I’m about to use may be uncomfortable for parents to read. Also know that my examples aren’t mean to imply that these words/phrases are always used in this way. Sometimes, when a teen says that they want pizza, it means nothing more than a visit to a local pizza shop is imminent.

Below are some of the examples of code words using by teens, with their explanation and an example of how it might be used:

BOB: An acronym for Battery Operated Boyfriend.
Example: She’s been spending a lot of time with BOB lately.

Bunny: An abbreviated form of a “Rope Bunny” – someone who likes being tied up.
Example: I’ve been hoping to find a cute bunny lately, but no such luck!

Chocolate: A black person.
Example: I’ve been craving chocolate a lot lately!

Headache: When a person, usually a male, is aroused and looking for sex.
Example: Man, I wish that I could do something about this headache. It just won’t go away.

Little: A person who pretends to be much younger than they are chronologically. The difference can be years or even decades. This person is often in search of someone who is looking to take care of them (not always sexually).
Example: I woke up feeling very little today.

Mary Jane: Another word for marijuana. Also known as MJ.
Example: Has anyone seen MJ lately? I’m looking for her.

Pet: A person who likes to be cared for, often in a submissive role.
Example: I’m looking for the perfect pet. Anyone? [Done in a chat room]

Pizza: A euphemism for sex. The idea is that there is no such thing as bad pizza and there is no such thing as bad sex.
Example: I really need to get some pizza today!

Smash: To have casual sex.
Example: Whenever I see him, I just want to smash him.

Your Turn

Below are three possible texts that have very different meanings compared to what they appear to be. Also included are multiple choice answers with their real meanings indicated afterwards.

Self-Test #1: I absolutely love corn, no matter how it’s done.

  1. Male genitalia.
  2. Pornography
  3. Something without alcohol.

Self-Test #2: Turtles are my favorite pet. Who doesn’t love them?

  1. A shy, introverted person.
  2. A person with a tough shell (personality).
  3. A person who will spend a lot of time on their pack (having sex).

Self-Test #3: I’d really love some spaghetti right about now.

  1. Someone who is straight when dry (sober), but gay when wet (drunk or high).
  2. Someone without a backbone – an easy pushover.
  3. A person of Italian ancestry.

Answers to Self-Tests #1:B. #2: C, #3: A

Takeaway

It can be very difficult to decode such messages because they look so innocent. And many times, they are innocent. It may take seeing several exchanges to finally understand the true nature of what’s being said between the people. The most likely place parents should watch out for these kinds of code words is on social media apps like Whisper or in a chat room.

My best advice is to confirm the intent by looking at an ongoing exchange, rather than after seeing only one possible coded message. The next is to focus more on educating them on the potential dangers involved with sexting, including sextortion and revenge porn. This video shows the potential consequences of sexting when images are included. It shows just how quickly and easily the images can go viral, being seen by many people, perhaps even by the original sender’s friends and family.

Once such images are distributed, getting them removed from the Internet is virtually impossible. It’s one reason why I say that when it comes to technology problems like sexting, an ounce of prevention isn’t worth a pound of cure, but an immeasurable amount of cure. And like any other activity that teens may do with technology, parents can teach their children a better way with patience and by keeping informed on what the risks are to their children.

One Wrong Click! Your Kid’s in Trouble Now!

Last updated on December 11th, 2021 at 09:32 pm

We hear in the news that companies get hacked all the time, but we rarely hear about when it happens to people like us. Trust me, it happens a lot!

Ransomware is more common than people realize, making its way into a device, such as a laptop, phone or tablet. Its name comes from the demand from the hacker to have their victim pay a fee to regain control of their device.

For private citizens, the danger includes targeting our children via emails and on social media. Even the most innocuous looking link can be a Trojan Horse, just waiting to infect a device. Kids may not realize the dangers inherent in clicking links and without meaning to, introduce malware onto their device or maybe even onto your device if family members share a device.

About eight years ago, Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf’s laptop was infected with malware. As a result, her laptop’s camera was recording her in her dorm room without her knowledge. Another teenager contacted Miss Wolf and threatened to release the intimate pictures of her unless she sent him more pictures. According to the records, he threatened to turn her “dream of being a model…into a porn star.”

That’s why I always keep a cover over my laptop’s camera unless I’m actively using it! Covering the microphone isn’t a bad idea, either.

To show you how easy it is to be tricked, all three of the links below appear as though they will take you to Google’s home page. The truth is that only one of them actually does what it appears to do. Can you tell which one that is? Don’t worry if you’re wrong, because the others take you to safe sites, I promise.

https://www.google.com/

https://www.google.com/

https://www.google.com/

On a laptop or tablet, you may be able to move the mouse/pointer over the link and see its destination before you click on it. Maybe. But on cellphones, that’s not an option and once you click on it, it’s too late – you’re in trouble and may not even realize it until it’s too late.

If infected with malware, the FBI’s official policy is to not pay the ransom, but many people feel it’s the only way that they will get access to their technology again. The key is to avoid getting infected in the first place.

Here are five steps that you and your kids can take to avoid potential malware problems:

  1. Explain to your children why they should never click on unknown links or download files from a source that is not completely trustworthy.
  2. Either design your devices so that they backup your data automatically or teach your children how to make backups of your data regularly, probably onto a flash drive.
  3. Teach them why they should never plug an unknown flash drive into your device.
  4. Install anti-virus software and keep it up to date and make sure that your children let you know about any warnings or messages that pop up on their devices BEFORE they act upon them.
  5. Make sure that your kids know to avoid letting others use their equipment, as they may not follow the same steps mentioned here and could introduce a virus onto the device.

Even by following these steps, keep in mind that nothing is foolproof, but anything you can do to help prevent your devices from being infected with viruses are well worth the effort. Even if no critical school or work files are lost, imagine the inconvenience of not having the devices available until they are fixed or maybe, replaced!

Hackers quickly come up with new coding that works around existing anti-virus software. The companies that make it are often playing catch up, learning about the new virus only after it has affected someone. Even Microsoft, one of the biggest tech companies in the world, has paid millions to hackers, paying them to expose weaknesses in their security. Like most problems involving both technology and our children, an ounce of prevention isn’t just worth a pound of cure – it’s worth an immeasurable amount of cure!

So where do you start??

Go back to the basics and remind your kids to not click on links from people that they don’t know. Even links sent by friends could be a problem if they’re just forwarding on a link from an untrustworthy source. Many hackers or predators will use the same technique that I used above to trick people into following links that look perfectly safe, but aren’t.

The best analogy that I can give you to use is to tell your kids to treat their computer like your own home. Just as you wouldn’t give a stranger the keys to your house, letting malware into your computer can give them access into plenty of personal information, including banking and credit card accounts, control over your device’s microphone/camera and a lot more…all without you even realizing that you’ve been attacked!

By following the steps above, you and your family will be far less likely to have malware introduced onto your devices and avoiding the problems in the first place is by far, the best possible outcome.

Parenting Resources to Keep Kids Safe Online

Last updated on May 4th, 2020 at 12:01 pm

In many cases, children are more adept at using technology than their parents. Today’s children are Digital Natives, meaning that they grew up with technology and social media is a way of life for them. They never knew a time without smartphones and social media. For anyone over 30, their teen years didn’t involve posing for selfies, using emojis or having to worry about sexting problems. However, as parents, we have more LIFE experience than they have and that’s what can make the difference in keeping kids safe online.

Many parents feel a sense of trepidation when it comes to what their children do online and that’s to be expected. The concerns involve not only what can happen to their kids, but how do they help them get through the problems. From cyberbullying to sexting and online predators, there are many real dangers to our children. Shawn Henry, of the FBI reported that at any given time, there are an estimated 750,000 child predators online.

Fortunately, there are some great resources available to help parents with their concerns. If you’re reading this now, then you’ve found one – Pediatric Safety! Dr. Michele Borba, Dr. Lynne Kenney and others are here for you. Dr. Kenney’s article on teaching kids empathy, while not specific to online issues, is spot-on about having life experiences that can help kids with problems of both offline and online matters. Kids with empathy are less likely to cause trouble online.

Below are several other resources available to you, including some free online sources and recommended reading to help parents understand more of what they can do and in some cases, use as teaching aids with their children. They may not always listen to their parents, but when they see real stories about what has happened to their peers, it may open their eyes and make them more receptive to what their parents have to say about online safety.

Cyberbullying Research Center

This is by far, my number one, go-to source on the Internet for help when it comes to online (and even offline) bullying issues. After all, cyberbullying is simply one more form of bullying. It has specific attributes, such as staying anonymous, that physical bullying doesn’t have, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful or less damaging to the target.

Heavily focused on doing the research to make their case, Dr. Justin Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja are outstanding in the field. Too often, people may want to dismiss cyberbullying and its effects as being overblown or simply anecdotal. These guys have done the research to prove the effects and they have plenty of free resources for anyone to use.

Common Sense Media

For parents looking for help on everything from what apps might cause problems to what movies are appropriate for certain ages, Common Sense Media is your best option. The site is broken down by age, by topic and provides “ultimate guides” for many popular apps and websites. There is a wide selection of material available in Spanish as well, which can be extremely helpful! Like the Cyberbullying Research Center, they are heavily involved in research and can provide you with a lot of data to support their positions

Needless to say, I love this organization and everything that they do.

International Bullying Prevention Association

People who bully offline are more likely to bully online. So, while their focus is not exclusive to cyberbullying, IBPA does provide resources to parents trying to understand what their kids are experiencing online. Their dedication to bullying in any form, online or offline, is very hard to beat. They have resources available for youth, family members, educators and more.

I especially like the resources dedicated to our youth. Many victims of bullying never tell anyone, suffering in silence. Just letting kids know that there are resources out there for them, specially designed for them gives them the opportunity to at least find some help if they don’t want to speak to anyone about their problems.

Darkness to Light

Child sexual abuse includes the sharing of intimate pictures of minors online. Perhaps the most valuable resource they provide is working as an advocate for victims of sexual abuse within the community and at all levels of government in the U.S. Education is great, but we need more people who will get involved in protecting our kids and Darkness to Light will do just that!

Unless you’ve experienced this for yourself, you can’t relate to how this feels. Having known a family personally that has been through this experience, I know the kind of trauma it can bring with it. If you ever have the opportunity to attend their training, I highly recommend it.

Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate

I don’t know what I can say about this book except that you should read it. A target of online harassment herself, Sue Scheff, who I am proud to call a friend and a mentor, does an amazing job with this book. Her storytelling teaches us how to avoid the problems that so many of us find ourselves getting into all too often.

These stories illustrate the real life repercussions that often accompany online actions. We tend to think of cybersafety issues such as bullying and shaming as being mainly problems for kids, but Sue shows how it affects people from all walks of life and all ages. Her examples of what I call the #OnlineMeetsOffline lesson is one that we all need to learn the easy way, not the hard way – by learning how to avoid it, rather than experiencing it for ourselves.

Cyberbullying and the Wild Wild Web

Jayne Hitchcock’s latest book is another great book that provides real-life examples of just how much is at stake when we go online. The target by an online stalker, she knows full well how dangerous it can be – something that our Digital Natives may not fully appreciate. While most people would agree that the Internet is largely a wide open, unmonitored and unregulated breeding ground for poor behavior, Jayne shows you quick and easy lessons to avoid problems from happening in the first place.

She uses examples of what can happen to create learning opportunities for people. For families, the fact that the book is relatively short means that children may be less likely to be intimidated by it and actually read it. Once they get started, they won’t want to put it down. I was really involved in reading this book and couldn’t put it down.

Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology

I love this book! Diana Graber is a middle school teacher and a cybersafety advocate whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person. She uses great examples of how things can go wrong and shows us how to do them the right way. Her C.R.A.P. acronym (Currency, Reliability, Author & Purpose) is a great way to teach the value of doing good online research for school – I now use it in my own classes at Thomas Jefferson University. Diana is very adept at relating to teenagers and parents learn how to talk to their kids about the value of good Digital Citizenship even if they aren’t up on the latest technology.

Conclusion

The approach parents take is key to helping protect our children. A heavy-handed approach rarely works with children in general and in the case of technology/social media, it’s too easy for them to get around any restrictions parents may place on them. The use of multiple accounts on the same platform (known as Finstas) and easy access to zombie devices make it almost impossible to prevent them from using the apps, so it’s more important to make sure that they know how to do it wisely.

I know what other parents are feeling, because I’m a father to a teenage daughter. Our ability to teach our children life lessons based on our own experiences is more important than our ability to use technology as well as they do.

The Techniques of a Predator: Part II – Bribery and Threats

Last updated on December 27th, 2018 at 12:25 pm

In The Techniques of a Predator: Part I we discussed how online predators groom children for both online and offline sexual attacks using trust and romance to manipulate them. Now, we will conclude this discussion by talking about how predators can use bribery and threats as well and we will give you additional ways to protect your children.

Bribery

Here, predators offer gifts to the other person in exchange for getting what they want. This often takes the form of gift cards that can be redeemed online. For younger victims, gift cards to Google Play or iOS App Store are popular. For older children, Amazon gift cards are popular, as are those to gaming platforms. They are easily obtained and the redemption codes can be sent via text or by taking a picture of the card’s unique code. They can also be difficult to trace, especially when bought in a store and sent as a picture.

Similar to the stereotypical drug dealer exchange, the first “gift” may be provided for free. After that, the predator suggests that since they did something for the victim, then the victim should do something in return before they give them another gift.

Threats

Once an intimate image is sent, it is easily used as leverage to get more. However, another type of threat is becoming more common. In this case, a predator takes their time to groom their target over an extended period of time. All during this time, there is nothing done or said that could be construed as troubling. Everything seems safe and risk-free.

During this time, the predator is learning about their target through seemingly innocent conversation, asking questions such as:

  • “Where do you go to school?”
  • “Where do you live?”
  • “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Depending on the app being used, their privacy settings, and if they’ve actually friended/connected this person, the predator has complete access to everything they’ve posted. They can see who their friends and family member are through their Facebook profile, for example. They can see who they follow on Instagram and who follows them. They can see who they’ve tagged in images and who has tagged them.

This all leads up to the predator threatening to physically hurt the people that their victim knows if they do not send pictures or videos to the predator. Scared and not sure whom to trust, minors often send the pictures to protect their family and friends. This only makes the situation worse, leading to more cases of sextortion.

In the case of Ashley Reynolds, she was contacted by a man who said that he had naked photos of her and would send them to her friends if she didn’t send him more pictures. Ashley was confident that nobody had such pictures of her like that, as she’d never sent any pics like that to anyone. She was 14 at the time.

Even if the images were not of her though, Ashley worried that people would not believe her if she denied it. Doubting herself, she yielded to his demands, which led to months of anguish, until her parents found out what was happening. She was sending as many as 60 pictures per day to her attacker. Eventually, her attacker made a mistake that led to his arrest. According to the FBI, he was a 31 year old man from Florida, with over 80,000 images on his computer from 350 girls, across 26 states, Canada and the U.K. He was sentenced to 105 years in prison for his crimes.

Had Ashley never sent the image to her attacker, she could very well have gotten through the situation, even if he had followed through on his threat to send pictures that were reportedly of her. By giving in, the opened the door to not being able to deny the pictures were of her.

How You Can Protect Your Family

Talk to your child about how sharing intimate photos online can affect them.

Parents need to discuss the realities of what can happen if such images ever make it to the Internet. One of those realities is that the images may never go away. They become part of their Digital Footprint – the impressions left behind long after the person does something online.

Wisdom comes with time, something that by their very nature, children lack.

Parents need to have “the talk” with their kids earlier than they expect to about what is acceptable and responsible with regards to online behavior. This may be more difficult to do than some parents would expect.

In the world where kids feel like they have to send such pictures or feel that it’s no big deal to show off their bodies, a “scared straight” approach might be what it takes to get through to them.

In Shame Nation, the Global Epidemic of Online Hate, the authors interviewed people involving a case coming from an affluent town in Massachusetts. Using Dropbox, an online storage site for file sharing, several high school boys reportedly starting posting intimate images of girls from the school. Even after the story broke, girls continued to send pictures to boys, knowing that they would likely end up on the site. They considered it an honor, with one mother saying, “It was a bit of a beauty contest… Some are mortified, some are proud.”

Encourage them to consider who could see what they share online.

In business classes that I teach, we discuss the Four P’s of Marketing. I took that approach and turned it into the Four P’s of Social Media:

  1. Parents (or other family members)
  2. Principal (or employer)
  3. Police
  4. Predator

Everyone should consider how they’d feel if any of the Four P’s of Social Media saw what people did online. Parents need to discuss what is acceptable and unacceptable to do online with their children – probably far earlier than they expect to have to do so.

Understand how important it is that you talk to your child about sex and consent.

Last year, I gave a presentation to all of the principals and guidance counselors in my own district’s schools. This originated after a district administrator noticed an increase in sexting at the grade school level! Even before that, when our daughter was in third grade, a classmate announced that she posts inappropriate pictures of herself on Instagram. It turned out to be not true in this case, but that statement was a cry for attention. A cry for help!

As Dr. Mary Anne Franks, the tech policy director at the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative explains, “Parents have to be willing to talk to their children about sex and the importance of sexual consent. Otherwise, they leave children to learn about sex from peers, porn, and predators.” When we choose to teach them about sex ourselves, we can limit the sexual influences of other people and teach them how to deal with pressure from outside sources, like predators.

Whether parents like it or not, sexting is the new norm for this generation. Forbidding them from doing it won’t stop them. If that were the case, children would always do as their told. Is that the way it works? In most homes, the answer is no. Some treat sexting as comparable to dating – before their parents will actually let them go out on a date. Others see it as “getting to first base”.

The old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do,” is no longer acceptable.

Be a role model.

Additionally, parents need to realize that they are role models to their kids 24/7. When they see adults or older siblings do things, they expect that it’s acceptable behavior and will not realize it may not be good for them. In a new study that just came out from the founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center, boys, not girls, were more likely to be targeted for sextortion. This surprised them and would probably shock many parents, who tend to think more about protecting girls from online sexual predators.

In conclusion, by speaking to our children clearly and openly about sexuality and online dangers, we give them the knowledge they need to make healthier decisions. And when we begin the dialogue with them, they are more likely to be open with us when they are facing a questionable situation.

Prevention here is not worth an ounce of cure. It’s worth an immeasurable amount of cure!

The Techniques of a Predator: Part I – Trust and Romance

Last updated on November 2nd, 2018 at 11:10 pm

Potentially, the most dangerous risk associated by minors going online is the risk of being groomed or attacked by a sexual predator. Online predators are very well-versed at knowing what to say in order to get what they want from their targets. They approach minors on frequently used apps, often pretending to be a minor themselves. They also find them while using popular online games, including Roblox, Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and others.

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life that pedophiles are everywhere online,” warns FBI Special Agent Greg Wing, who supervises a cyber squad from the Bureau’s Chicago field office. Special Agent Wesley Tagtmeyer, who also works out of the Chicago office in undercover operations, states that in his experience, about 70 percent of kids will accept “friend” requests regardless of whether they know the requester.

Examples of interactions with online predators:

In one of the best known cases of online predators, Amanda Todd, a 15 year old girl from British Columbia, Canada, was targeted by a man in the Netherlands. As this video explains, the man who came after her knew exactly what young Amanda wanted to see and hear and he gave it to her. The result was the suicide of a young woman who was taken from us far too soon.

His arrest in this case showed that he was similarly attacking at least 39 victims. In some cases, predators do more than engage with their targets online. Apps like Whisper or Tinder include geographic features designed to let people find others nearby to attempt meeting them in person. While some consenting adults might choose to use this for casual sex, predators use them to find nearby victims.

In suburban Philadelphia earlier this year, a man started talking with a 14 year old girl on Whisper. She mentioned that she was depressed and had been fighting with her mother. He convinced her to give him her address so that they could watch a movie together because in her words, he seemed “nice”. Police reports indicate that he arrived within five minutes, took the girl into her bedroom and raped her, leaving immediately after.

The basics:

Many online predators are very patient and will stalk prey the way a lion goes after a gazelle, going after the young and possibly (emotionally) vulnerable.

There are several techniques that predators use to get images or videos from their targets. In many cases, they entice the minor to send the images and parents would be surprised to find out how often the juvenile sends the requested pictures, without realizing the risks involved. In other cases or if enticing doesn’t work, the predator simply demands/threatens the child to get what they want.

In the case of Amanda, her attacker befriended her at the beginning. In the case of a family I know personally, her attacker took the opposite approach and almost immediately threatened to attack her family if she did not send him naked pictures. Worried for her family’s safety, she complied.

In part one of this two part series, we will focus on how online predators coerce their prey through trust and romance and what we, as parents, can do to make these tactics less effective. In part two we will go on to discuss how when these appeals fail, predators will often shift to bribery or even threats.

Trust

Predators know that it will take time to earn someone’s trust. They create an elaborate online presence, often using multiple accounts. These accounts often interact with each other to create the appearance of a genuine person who has been online for a long time.

Often, predators find a boy or girl who may not be popular or socially adept and treat them very well. The predator takes time to develop a trusted bond with their victim. They ask for a very safe picture, such as headshot. They compliment them and tell them how pretty or handsome they look.

They ask what kinds of music or books they like. Remarkably, they say that they like the exact same things, creating a bond that the victim sees as finding someone who finally “gets” them. Eventually, they ask for racier pictures until they finally get what they want. This technique can often lead to threats to get more pictures or videos if they stop sending the images, a routine known as sextortion.

Romance

Similar to the trust process, the parties may actually be involved in an actual relationship, either in person or just online. Eventually, trust is earned and perhaps it exists both ways, but if/when the relationship ends, the problems can begin in the form of Revenge Porn, the distribution of intimate images from former lovers to embarrass or otherwise cause them harm.

In some cases, the person who wants the other person to send racy pics will start simply by asking for a fairly tame picture, such as picture of a girl wearing a bikini or in her underwear. While both essentially show the same amount of skin, there is a stigma often associated with the later. Either way, such pics often involve a pose that might be embarrassing if seen by the general public, family members, teachers, etc.

One middle school guidance counselor in my county explained that what she often hears from students who send such pictures is, “If I say no, they may not like me.”

If even racier pictures are requested and denied by the other person, predators might say something like, “You’d send it if you really loved me,” or “I just want something to look at when you’re not with me.” This approach can be very effective to someone who is in a relationship and doesn’t want this issue to cause a problem &/or end the relationship.

Preventing the Trust or Romance Approaches from Working

Schools focus on the hard skills: reading, writing, etc. While some teachers may put emphasis on soft skills, it is often left to the parents to encourage these skills. These skills are now collectively referred to as emotional intelligence. In his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman does an excellent job at not only helping parents raise emotionally intelligent children, he specifically discusses how marriage, divorce and death can impact children. Traumatic events such as those often leave children vulnerable to outside influences, including online predators.

The best thing that parents can do to help prevent these approaches from working on their children is to promote your child’s self-esteem.

This will make the predators less likely to be able to trick them into believing that they are really their friends.

But it doesn’t stop there. Nobody should ever send intimate pictures to anyone. Even assuming that the recipient would never use them against the person, devices do get hacked or stolen. Imagine the trauma when a romantic rival of your child finds the opportunity to “borrow” your child’s phone and sends images from the phone to others? It’s just not worth the risk – ever!

In part two of this discussion, additional techniques used by predators will be explained. Also included will be shocking news from a new study on sextortion, conducted by the co-founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center, so keep an eye out for it.

Teach Your Child How to Not Get Caught by a Catfish

Last updated on April 4th, 2020 at 11:03 pm

At any given moment, there are thousands of predators online, looking for people to exploit. Children are often the target, but not always.

To realize just how easy it can be to create a fake, but realistic-looking online profile, consider the case of former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. He thought that he was in a relationship with a woman named “Lennay Kekau”, only to find out that it was an elaborate rouse. Law enforcement suspects that Te’o was not the only person to fall into this trap.

The very nature of social media often encourages the idea of anonymity. Very few people, beyond celebrities or politicians, bother to get themselves verified by social media platforms. The general public rarely bothers, even it is available. At the current time, Facebook does not even offer this feature.

Many social media platforms, such as Omegle and Whisper, don’t offer users a profile, much less a profile picture. They embrace the idea of anonymity. Anyone can claim to be whomever they choose online, simply by stealing an image online and putting it on their account. Kik has taken to occasionally having people prove that there is at least a real person using their service to avoid automated accounts, known as “bots” from becoming too common.

Legally, in the U.S., at least, a person can be punished for impersonating another person online. Assuming they’re caught, which is pretty difficult to do.

However, there is no law prohibiting a person from pretending to be related to someone else. That means that a predator or jokester can claim to be someone’s aunt/uncle, sibling, or any other relative without the threat of reprisal. This can lead people into accepting friend requests based on the premise of “innocent by association”.

Chris Hansen, who you may know from his television show, To Catch a Predator, is back with a new show, Hansen Vs. Predator. The original show routinely presented cases where men tried to “hook up” with young girls for sex. It was canceled in part because an Assistant District Attorney in Texas was caught in the sting and committed suicide when police came to arrest him. His family then sued NBC, who settled out of court in a wrongful death case.

Hansen used Kickstarter to fund his new show to protect underage users from online predators. He found that the situation had barely changed since his previous show was taken off the air. If anything, it may have gotten worse, as more kids are using social media than ever before.

The point is that this would not have been a problem if the teens had taken some very simple precautions. Online predators live in the darkness, like the trolls from fairy tales who live under the bridge in the dark forest. Being exposed is their worst fear. They will do anything to avoid it!

To avoid being taken in by a catfish who is trying to prank, groom or even kidnap a child, here are some easy things that they can do:

  • Maintain strict privacy settings on all social media accounts. Otherwise, predators can learn all they need to pretend to be from the same town or even the same school as the child by simply looking at their profile.
  • Look at their list of friends. Too few or too many are unrealistic. Pictures with only a few of the same people in them are a potential concern.
  • Does their account have a lot of typos or grammatical errors in it? This is especially important if the mistakes are in what should be their native language.
  • Look at the groups that they belong to online. Again, being a member of too many groups, especially with a very wide range of topics, should raise red flags.
  • Look at their posts, tweets, etc. If there are only minimal posts, that’s a sign of a new account. Be warned, though, that many predators maintain multiple accounts, posting over a long period of time to divert suspicion from them.
  • Never speak to someone online that you don’t know in real life and provide them with any personal information.
  • Before you accept a friend request or connection, verify the request offline. It could very easily be someone pretending to be a friend in real life trying to get access to your profile and contact with your friends and family. Once someone is accepted as a friend, they use this as a way to make other friends online from their victim’s other online friends.
  • If the app allows for it, have them send a very specific picture – one that is not likely to be faked. For example, ask for a picture of them holding a pencil in their hand while making the Vulcan salute with their face also in the picture. The likelihood that anyone would have such a picture on their computer already or could make one up on short notice is very slim. If they won’t provide such a picture, there is a good chance that they are a predator, no matter what reason they give for not being able to give you such a picture.
  • Ask them for a video where they answer a question, such as what is their favorite baseball team or the city they want to visit the most. Again, their face should be in the video.
  • Take a screenshot from their profile and upload it to the reverse image search by Google to see if the image shows up anywhere else.
  • Even without pictures or videos, if the person on the other end is someone the target potentially already knows, ask them a question that ONLY the real person would know, similar to how websites ask security questions for people who have forgotten their passwords. It’s not as reliable as a video or picture, but it’s a start.

No predator will want to acquiesce to these kinds of requests. Just be prepared to reciprocate, proving to them that you are who you say you are. Turnabout’s only fair.

For additional information on grooming by predators, visit:

https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/online-grooming/.