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

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

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

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/.

The Debate on Teens and Social Media: In Perspective

The debate over the effects of social media on our teen’s mental health is a heated one. Some argue that social media is causing narcissism, depression, and anxiety among other things. Others believe social media actually aids people with depression and anxiety by giving them an outlet and a support group that they might not have had otherwise.

With rising depression and suicide rates, it is understandable that we would seek causes that are easily actionable, like social media use.

Regardless of which side you are on, this debate highlights some important issues facing our society right now:

Our society is developing at a faster rate than has ever been seen before. We are living in the Information Age and our children are more immersed in news, politics, pop culture, and advertisements than any generation before. Information is now widely available to adults and children alike and the dark parts of our society are coming more into the light. Our children know and see things that many of us didn’t have to deal with until we were adults, or didn’t have to deal with at all.

This means our dialogue with our children will have to change and the direction we choose to take this conversation will affect our future.

The internet is bringing mental health issues to light in a way that has never been possible before now. Social media platforms give individuals, who otherwise might never have had space, the place to discuss their experiences. This can be cathartic for them and help them find a community of people who relate. This is especially important for children and teens who may not have a healthy home life and good support system within their physical community. Mental illness is a major problem in our society and has been for a long time – as it becomes less stigmatized it will be easier for the kids and teens affected to reach out for help.

As they become more comfortable reaching out, it is up to us how their call for help is answered. Parents and communities have a wonderful opportunity to use the internet to observe and act on mental health issues before they become a crisis. However, social media, like mental illness, doesn’t play favorites. If the wrong person responds, the situation can escalate from bad to worse very quickly.

Social media can serve as a type of coping mechanism, something that helps kids, teens, and adults deal with the stressors of life. Coping mechanisms are important, but it is very important that they be used in a healthy way. Anything can be used to the point where it causes harm under the right circumstances and social media is no exception.

Social media is a tool. Tools are very important. Social media can be used to spread hatred and violence, or it can be used to organize protests against those same ideals. It can be a support system, a place of comfort, or a sounding board for a new creative project. It can be used amongst friends to make plans and share moments when they are far apart, or by loved ones to keep up with relatives who live in different cities. It can also be used to bully kids and spread disinformation.

We need to learn the positive impacts of social media on the world as well as the negative so that we can, in turn, teach our children how to use it in a healthy and positive way.

As we continue to find our way in this new world I believe it is important to keep a few things in mind.

  • Mental health issues are caused by a variety of factors, and the seeds for the crisis we are facing now were sewn long before social media.
  • Teaching our children to respect themselves and others will go a long way in both the physical world and online
  • For better or worse, the Internet is here to stay and social media is a huge part of that. I believe we need to keep an open mind and remember the good that can come from this shift as well as the bad
  • The Internet is a reflection of our physical world, the issues facing children online are also facing them in the real world and we won’t change the Internet without addressing the causes of those issues in the outernet.

When tragedy strikes we look for explanations. When something like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting happens, we must ask questions like, did social media exacerbate Cruz’s mental illness to the point of violence? Or did we miss his calls for help and, in our grief, use social media as a scapegoat for a society that ultimately failed him?

For more information on the links between social media and mental health, check out these resources:

Teens, Social Media, and Technology – Pew Research Center

Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking – NCBI

Can Social Media Help People with Serious Mental Illness Feel More Connected to Their Community? – NIDILRR

Benefits of Social Media For Mental Health Support – Healthyplace.com