If your child is online interacting with others on social media, federal law enforcement says there is a chance they could be speaking to a child sexual predator and they may not even know it. The FBI says technology has made it a lot easier for child predators to get to your kids.
"The opportunities are massive. It is a completely different world that we live in today than we lived in five years ago or 10 years ago," said Jeffrey Sallet, the Special Agent in Charge of the New Orleans Division.
Sallet heads the newly formed Violent Crimes Against Children Human Trafficking Task force comprised of federal and local law enforcement. He said just last year, the FBI agents rescued 10 children in Louisiana after predators befriended them online and convinced the kids to meet them in person. Sallet said in about half of those files, the predator successfully lured the children away from their homes.
"That means they've been groomed and they know their weakness and interests," he said.
The federal agent said predators target children as young as age 12, both boys and girls. Given the widespread nature of the problem, units of FBI agents now spend their day working online undercover to intercept the criminals before they harm another child. We spoke to two of those undercover agents, concealing their identities.
"Sometimes we go in disguised as a young person. Sometimes we go in as another adult who has a common interest with that adult who has an interest in a minor. So it depends on the person we are talking to, so they kind of steer where the investigation goes," said Agent #1.
From their computers they say they see firsthand the deceptive methods that sexual predators use to create relationships with unsuspecting children. They said most parents don't know or aren't aware that child sexual predators disguise their identities in online video games to lure young victims. One such case happened in Greece, New York. In 2012, law enforcement officers said 19-year-old Richard Kretovic was convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy he lured online while playing an online video game. But agents say not all potential suspects are convicted felons.
"For the most part, these are people ho have never been in trouble with law enforcement," said FBI Agent #2.
The Pew Research Center says 97 percent of young people ages 12 to 17 play some form of video game. Its studies also show more than a quarter of them play online with people they don't know. Federal agents said predators use avatars or voice and text chat functions to connect with kids.
"Different games allow you to create a digital avatar or a picture of someone. Often times, a predator creates an Avatar that is friendly and appeals to children," said Agent #2 .
The agents said all those long hours children spend immersed online interacting with others is a perfect setting for a smooth-talking predator. Agents said a predator uses that time to woo the child. They said a predator's initial goal is gain the child's trust so the child never kicks him or her out of the game.
"Sometimes they'll go in and pretend to be the adult and say things to make the victims feel good about themselves. It's usually things they may not have been hearing from other people," said Agent #1
The agents said predators also use information you and your children share on social media to learn about your kids and their daily routine. Once they make contact, it can take a predator months or just hours to convince a child to meet up.
"Maybe they will suggest doing something fun, something the child does not do on a normal basis," said Agent #2
Once a child is lured away, time is of the essence. But they said one way parents can beat the odds of finding their child is to know how their children engage online. Their recommendation for parents: Make a deal with your children and have them write down the names of all their social media accounts and passwords – and then agree to keep it sealed in a secure place.
"And you can all agree in the event a child goes missing, the first place they want to show law enforcement is the envelope with all the user names, accounts and passwords," said Agent #2.
In 2016, it's a danger in the digital world most parents aren't even aware of. But federal agent say they need to get up to speed fast. Agents stress it's key in protecting their children in this New Age Predator Playground.