Although the Boone County Sheriff’s Department’s (BCSD) Cyber Crimes Task Force plays a role in protecting children from cybercriminals, a parent’s attention is the primary deciding factor in whether a child will be safe from Internet harm.
“We want to give parents the courage and the belief that they can stop these issues before they are ever even created,” says Detective Tracy Perkins. To proactively protect children, parents should be mindful of the various signs of online grooming, as well as the specific threats that social media, apps and other social technologies present.
Signs of Grooming
Grooming, otherwise known as “conditioning,” is when an online predator builds an emotional connection with a child to gain trust. Predators eventually abuse this trust for the purposes of sexual abuse or exploitation.
Tell-tale signs to look for include:
- Children suddenly becoming secretive about their online activity or everyday activities.
- Children participating in frequent online conversations via their phones, tablets, laptops or gaming devices.
- Children having older boyfriends and girlfriends.
- Children going to unusual places where they say they are meeting their “friends.”
- Children having new things such as clothes, phones, gift cards, etc., then refusing to explain why they have these items.
- Children having easy access to drugs and alcohol.
Predator prompts to recognize include.
- “Let’s go private/Let’s direct message (DM)/Let’s text.”
- “Where is the computer in your house?”
- “What are your favorite things to do?”
- “I know someone who could get you a modeling job.”
- “I know a way you could earn money fast.”
- “You seem upset. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
- “What’s your phone number?”
- “If you don’t ___, then I’ll ___.” (Intimidating threats)
- “I love you. You’re the love of my life.”
Each of these behavior shifts and trigger phrases should raise a red flag; however, it is also important to remember the power of intuition. The general sense that something is amiss should never be ignored. “Always pay attention to your gut when communicating with people online,” says Detective Andrew Evans, another seasoned member of the task force.
Social Technology Safety
Popular apps, social media platforms and online gaming devices grant easy access to some of the most public arenas of a person’s life, making these mediums ideal atmospheres for lurking predators.
“Any [social technology] comes with cybersecurity risks,” Perkins says. She specifically warns of the dangers of social media platforms and apps that offer direct messaging options, as these are the secretive spaces where predators urge their victims to privately communicate.
The biggest names in social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat — are included in this category. Other popular and potentially dangerous apps include: KiK, WhatsApp, Live.Me, Music.ly, and various dating apps, each of which offers private messaging or video streaming options. “All apps can be unsafe,” Evans says. “It all just depends on the way they are used.”
Online gaming also presents significant cybersecurity risks. “There are not a lot of restrictions if you allow your child to wear a headset and speak online with complete strangers while gaming,” Evans says. “A lot of information could be obtained [through these gaming devices], as they allow images and videos to be sent through them since they connect to the Internet.”
Social technology safety precautions include:
- Developing a parental “approval process,” setting guidelines and expectations for all apps, social media platforms and gaming devices downloaded on a child’s devices.
- Setting substantial privacy settings across all social platforms, regulating which users are allowed to view information and photos or videos.
- Being familiar with each platform’s privacy policies.
- Avoiding posting or sharing excessive personal information (home address, phone number, birthdate, work, school other “check-in locations”).
- Not posting revealing or racy photos, specifically as a main profile image.
- Being mindful of what the background of a photo reveals.
- Avoiding suggestive usernames or handles.
- Being selective with friend requests.
- Reconsidering the need for large amounts of friends or followers.
- Setting unique, secure passwords for each social platform.
- Clicking all links with caution, especially pop-up ads.
Monitoring the Madness
Safety suggestions offer grounded guidance for proactively navigating through the dangers of the Web. In addition to these suggestions, the Cyber Crimes Task Force provides recommendations for parents who wish to effectively mentor their children and monitor their online activities.
“We always encourage parents to take the proactive approach versus the reactive approach,” Perkins says. “They can stop many [of these cybercrimes] before they even happen.”
Impressionable children require strong mentors who are knowledgeable regarding cybersecurity topics. Parents should strive to be that voice in their kids’ lives and be well-educated in these areas to understand the dangers, prevent them before they occur and properly report them if necessary.
Parents should also be well-versed in cybercrime laws, Perkins says. “If you don’t know them, just Google ‘Missouri Internet laws.’ Do research and pull out some hardcore facts. Share these things with your kids and show them that this is serious business.”
Parents should self-examine during their education process to determine whether they are setting honorable standards for their children. “Unfortunately, a lot of parents aren’t the best role models for their kids, especially when it comes to social media,” Perkins says. “Reflect on your own personal online boundaries. Is what you’re communicating to your children acceptable?”
Once educated on the subject, parents should strive for open, honest communication with their children regarding the realness of cybersecurity threats. While some of the facts might seem gruesome and frightening, it is important not to shy away from them.
It is also crucial to remember that these discussions should be free of condescension or judgment, Evans says. Discussions should occur between spouses and partners to ensure families are on the same page regarding these issues.
Online threats are still likely to come knocking at the doors of cybersecurity-savvy families, but there are resources for monitoring the online activities of children. The task force provides several recommended safety options that fit any family’s situation or budget.
The largest investment parents can make in protecting their children from cyber predators is online filtering software. This method involves installing complex programs in technology devices to block potentially harmful activities from occurring.
High-tech options provide several advantages, Evans says, yet they have downfalls. “All online filtering software options have unique benefits, but remember: Kids are smart and could eventually figure out ways to get around the software.”
Some families choose to purchase apps to aid in monitoring children’s activities. Parents can also employ several costless monitoring options. Perkins and Evans both recommend using built-in phone safety features, as these are reliable, user-friendly and ideal for restricting certain activities.
“I recommend that parents enable all restriction modes on their children’s technologies,” Evans says. However, even the most secure restrictions are no substitute for parents’ watchful eyes and commitment to setting their own rules.
The vastness of the Internet presents unlimited threats, but parental guidelines and monitoring techniques can be instrumental in preventing online harm. Both cybersecurity officers issue a final monitoring suggestion: Don’t forget to frequently check your kids’ devices.
Reporting the Evidence
Unfortunately, instead of proactively defending potential online threats, many parents must deal with cybercrimes on a more reactive level. So, what should parents do if, and when, they discover actual evidence that online predators have targeted their child?
- Retain all evidence. Do not delete any information. Save all messages, photos or videos, taking screenshots where necessary.
- Never tell the suspect you are contacting law enforcement.
- Suspend all judgment, and be clear in communicating with children that these transgressions are not their fault. Withholding in-depth questions is also wise, as excessive parental prodding can lead to tainted answers. Wait for law enforcement to conduct official forensic interviews designed for obtaining maximum evidence.
- Never postpone reporting suspicious activity. Call local law enforcement or the Cyber Crimes Task Force, or reach out through the online CyberTip line.
Cybersecurity is an issue that lives in obscurity, but it’s being brought into the light by crime-fighting groups such as the BCSD Cyber Crimes Task Force. Understanding the methods and motives of predators, as well as the ins and outs of monitoring the madness of the Internet, can help parents keep their family free of predators who seek to steal their children’s innocence.
For more information, visit bcsdcybercrimes.com, and read “Who is Protecting the Children?” in the August issue of Inside Columbia for more on the BCSD Cyber Crimes Task Force and the work it does to protect mid-Missouri children online.