How sexual predators are using everyday social media apps to target children

Updated: Nov. 27, 2019 at 9:27 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Inside the Kenton County Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is what detectives call the ‘Wall of Shame.’

Det. Brian Jones is on the task force, and for ICAC, this wall is something of a trophy case. On it are pictures of men busted by ICAC for attempting to meet a minor for sex or possessing, distributing or manufacturing child porn.

How do men get on the wall?—that is, how do they draw their victims in? For many of them, according to Jones, the answer is social media apps.

‘Operation Open Door’ was a massive sting operation pulled off by prosecutors in New Jersey last month. The operation saw 19 alleged child predators arrested for using social media apps to lure underage girls and boys into sexual activity. It describes 27 different apps that could be used for that purpose today.

Some of the apps are obscure, and you’d be forgiven for never having heard of all of them. Jones hasn’t. He says they tend to come and go—to pop up, then disappear.

Others are, well, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and the like.

Some social media apps parents should be monitoring.
Some social media apps parents should be monitoring.(Somerset, New Jersey Prosecutor's Office)

The most dangerous apps, says Jones, are those that use your phone’s location settings.

Sometimes that means whatever stranger the child is talking to can actually see where the child is—where they go to school, where they hang out with their friends, where they go to sleep at night.

In fact, Jones explains, the location maps in these applications are so detailed they can track a child going from one room inside a house to another.

“And that’s really scary,” Jones said.

Other apps, Jones continues, use location services to match users with other users in their backyards. Apps like Tinder, Whisper and Grindr—geographic proximity is their main feature.

That’s why Jones encourages parents to deactivate the location settings in these apps if they are enabled on their children’s phones.

But apps are making things tough for parents and law enforcement alike. Snaps, for example, disappear from Snapchat, while WhatsApp messages can be permanently deleted.

“And particularly when you get into these apps that are geared around live streaming, it gets that much harder to track what’s being done inside it,” FOX19 NOW tech expert Dave Hatter explained.

Hatter says some predators prefer live streaming with children so there’s no record of them asking for pictures, records which otherwise can alert websites and law enforcement authorities of the activity.

But how do the children fall for this?—that is, how do they get drawn in?

FOX19 NOW spoke with a local Jane Doe who was just 14 when she was lured by an adult through social media into sex.

“They make you feel good about yourself,” the Jane Doe said. “They tell you that, ‘Oh, you are beautiful.’ ‘I want to have a family with you.’ At the end of the day, they are just manipulating you.”

The Jane Doe came from a broken home. She says the man convicted of raping her in his apartment used her upbringing against her—and that most sexual predators will do the same thing.

“He was telling me I was pretty. I could be a model. I could do this or I could do that,” she said.

She has a message too, for any minor thinking they might go out and meet an adult they’ve encountered online.

“They are literally saying whatever they can—whatever they can—to meet up with you,” she explained. “You never know. That next person that you meet up with? That could be your last time.”

As for parents, the Jane Doe says to notice the signs children are giving, to pay attention to depressive moods.

“Always ask them questions,” she said, though in the next breath she cautioned, “they are never going to tell you the truth. They are never going to tell you what’s really going on.”

All the more reason to keep asking.

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Below, FOX19 NOW has provided some contact numbers to call if you are being contacted or know a minor who is being contacted by someone you suspect to be a predator:

Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children: 440.886.5284

Kentucky State Police ICAC: 502.782.1800

Indiana State Police ICAC: 317.232.8309

The national Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 1.800.THE.LOST (1.800.843.5678)

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