Health & Fitness

Online prowlers are easily finding teens to groom for sex. Here’s how to stop it

Fresno police say the prevalence of the internet in young people’s lives has led to an increase in traffickers finding their victims through social media.
Fresno police say the prevalence of the internet in young people’s lives has led to an increase in traffickers finding their victims through social media. aappleton@fresnobee.com

Last year, when a Modesto mom, Andi, was using her family’s shared iPad, a strange encrypted message popped up. She clicked on the icon, which looked like a calculator but was a disguise for a chat room. This led her to graphic anatomical pictures of adult men who were looking for sex with young girls.

One of those young girls, it turned out, was her 12-year-old daughter, Anna.

“I found she had taken (explicit) pictures of herself and was sending them in response to requests from men,” said Andi, who asked that their full names not be used, to protect her children.

She said she was overwhelmed with concern that Anna was involved in this. She immediately deleted all of the pictures of her daughter and the men, as well as the apps. She feared that Anna was being groomed for sex trafficking and wanted to remove any chance of a predator finding her.

Anna was terrified and in tears — she hadn’t realized she was a victim.

Andi took Anna and the iPad to the Modesto Police Department. Without any of the apps, MPD wasn’t able to track down the predators.

“Don’t do that,” Andi warned other families about her mistake in deleting all photos and apps. “The police need it for evidence.”

Computers, smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices offer kids easy access to the Internet. And they provide predators easy access to kids.

“Many children don’t understand the danger they could be in online,” said Sgt. Brian Kleiber, specials victims unit supervisor at the MPD. He said parents need to monitor their kids online and have the difficult conversations about the risks.

Who gets targeted for trafficking?

Anna is a a high achiever, competitive athlete and has an intact family. She’s a beautiful girl, with an athletic physique and flawless skin. She is also trusting and naive.

Like Anna, the majority of victims of human trafficking are girls and young women. However, youth of any sex and gender identities can be targeted. In fact, LGBTQ youth are at higher risks for being lured into an inappropriate sexual relationship with an adult, according to The Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“My 16-year-old son was trying to video chat using Instagram,” said Lynn. “He was sending and receiving d--k pics.”

Lynn, too, requested that their full names not be used but wanted to tell her family’s story as a cautionary tale for other families.

Last year, her son came out as gay. Lynn said her family is very accepting and understanding that teens need to explore their sexuality. But, she said, using apps on a cellphone or searching on the Internet is not safe.

Her son was trying to have a virtual sexual encounter with an Instagram “friend” he thought was another teen boy. But Lynn knew by the pornographic picture of the friend’s genitalia that he was an adult.

She learned about her son’s online activities from routine monitoring of his phone. Her son knew his mother checked his phone, but he still had plenty of explicit pictures and texts.

“When we were teens, looking at the Victoria’s Secret catalog was the extent of seeing porn,” Lynn said. “Now, it’s not many steps to get to porn and see things they shouldn’t see. Everything imaginable is at their fingertips.”

Internet is a favorite place for predators to lure kids

Why is the internet a favorite place for creeps to lure kids into their clutches? Because that’s where the kids are — often unsupervised.

In 2018, 95% of teens reported they owned or had access to a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center survey. A 2016 report from Common Sense Media found that teens average at least nine hours a day of screen time, excluding texting and time spent at school or for homework. About 45% of the teens reported they were online nearly constantly. Generation Z, people born in the early 2000s, average 17 hours a day using a device, according to marketing research from ReFuel.

“The devices bring the whole world into our kids’ rooms,” said Andi. She said it’s hard to keep kids safe because access to the Internet is so easy.

One in five American adolescents, 13-19, self-reported that they have sent or posted fully or semi-nude photos of themselves online.

“Children (usually it’s girls) as young as 11, 12 or 13 years old are sending inappropriate pictures to boys who they consider a boyfriend,” said Kleiber. “Those girls later find that those pictures are used against them.”

He said the boys will demand more pics or sexual activity or they’ll share the pictures publicly.

Stranger danger forgotten on the internet

“Stranger danger in person, they get,” said Andi. “But on a device, they trust anyone.”

Predators like the anonymity of the internet. And so do teens.

Young adolescents 10 to 12, often called “tweens,” like online connections because they can practice flirting and explore their burgeoning sexuality in a space they perceive as risk-free.

The internet is bursting with chat rooms and apps specifically advertised to teens and tweens for flirting and trying out alternate identities, without the risk of in-person embarrassment. These websites have variable security measures.

The unmonitored sites are creepy playgrounds for predators. With the apps, pedophiles no longer need to prowl around real schoolyards with the stereotypical, windowless white van to grab kids.

Tweens and teens voluntarily go on the sites, seeking acceptance.

“Anna is a typical 13-year-old girl,” said Andi. “She wants some outside approval.”

Another factor for risk-taking behaviors of adolescents is that their brains aren’t mature. The frontal cortex, the area responsible for decision making, does not fully develop until about age 25. Thus, teens might not consider long-term consequences in assessing risks.

But the risks are real. The average age for being sex trafficked is 12, but victims as young as 12 months have been rescued.

“You have to start early,” said Christy Beffa when talking about teaching children cybersafety. Beffa is community service officer for missing persons with the Modesto Police Department.

She said predators are skilled at finding kids who are vulnerable to manipulation. Then they can groom them for their personal sexual satisfaction or their economic needs.

Experts report that grooming for trafficking happens in three phases: scouting, manipulating and trapping.

For scouting, predators look for a vulnerability in a victim to exploit. The victim then is showered with whatever is his or her greatest desire, such as love, acceptance, expensive gifts or false promises for a job or a better life. After the manipulation, the predator traps the victim into a life of prostitution or servitude.

Trafficking in the Central Valley

As a border state with a significant immigrant population and the world’s ninth-largest economy California is one of the nation’s top four “destination” states for the roughly $150 billion a year global human-trafficking industry, the state attorney general reports.

From 2010-2018, more than 700 victims were identified and rescued in the San Joaquin Valley. The Central Valley is home to populations that are especially vulnerable, including migrants, runaways, foster kids and impoverished youth.

“About 60% of our survivors call Stanislaus County home,” said Debbie Johnson, founder of Without Permission. Since 2010, the group has helped nearly 500 survivors. Many of their clients are referred from the MPD.

On its website, Without Permission is described as a faith-based, nonprofit organization that works to end sex trafficking.

“In our area, people are trafficked out to where the money is,” said Kleiber. He declined to say how MPD handles cybercrimes related to sex trafficking but said the department has a detective dedicated to investigating child pornography, including online.

In addition to apps, chat rooms and dating sites, predators also use online gaming sites to find victims.

In 2018, Newsweek reported that predators were using the extremely popular online game “Fortnite” to reach kids. Adults were infiltrating the game and offering game advancements in exchange for sexually explicit pictures.

Lynn’s son lured on gaming system

After talking with her teen and restricting his Internet access, Lynn thought things had resolved. Then, over Labor Day weekend, Lynn discovered her son was communicating with a teen boy he had met on the internet through his Playstation console.

The teens had been exchanging a series of texts with graphic language and pictures. Within one day, the boy went from saying “I have a crush on you,” to “I love you.”

Lynn’s son was planning to run away to Alabama to live with the boy. Lynn said her son had video chatted with the him and he was actually a teen. However, an Internet search revealed that the teen had the same unusual name as a sex offender imprisoned in Florida. The boy said that was his father.

This scenario is very scary for sex trafficking, as trafficked teens are often used to lure other kids into the trap.

In the end, with these episodes behind them, both Anna and Lynn’s son are in therapy, their parents said.

“I consider myself to be savvy, but I learned a lot from this experience,” said Lynn.

Her advice to parents is to think like you’re playing “to catch a predator,” and monitor your children’s phones all the time, check messages on gaming consoles, and limit access on the internet.

Said Andi: “Don’t be scared of tech — it has some good points. But put parameters in place to keep your child safe, just like you put up baby gates. Teenagers need those baby gates.”

This story was produced with financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with the GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of this work.

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Here are 10 Ways Caregivers Can Identify Sex Trafficking from Haven’s Women’s Center. “Being present and just asking simple questions goes a long way,” said Enaya Rosas, coordinator for human trafficking programs at Haven Women’s Center in Modesto. “Know how to help. We have a lot of resources in the community.”

  1. Don’t be naive — any kid can be a predator’s target
  2. Live by example
  3. Communicate positive messages
  4. Understand sexual abuse and trafficking
  5. Know their social circle
  6. Monitor their smartphone (and other devices)
  7. Inspect other activity
  8. Teach Internet etiquette
  9. Be aware and act — know and look for warning signs
  10. Know how to help — The National Human Trafficking Center hotline is 1-888-373-7888.
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ChrisAnna Mink is pediatrician and health reporter for The Modesto Bee. She covers children’s health in Stanislaus County and the Central Valley. Her position is funded through the financial support from The Stanislaus County Office of Education and the Stanislaus Community Foundation, along with The GroundTruth Project’s Report for America initiative. The Modesto Bee maintains full editorial control of her work.
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