The New Stranger Danger

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Do you know what your child’s really doing on their cell phone? Some may feel they don’t want to snoop. But by having a good handle on their activity, you could help prevent unsavory attention from possibly destroying their childhood. Tri-State kids victimized more than ever before.

It’s the picture taken when it’s far too late. And too often, it’s nothing like the original.

“Child exploitation is absolutely a growing problem,” says Evansville Police Detective Bryan Brown, who’s also a member of the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force.

Indiana State Police received triple the number of tips on child exploitation last year compared to five years ago. That’s just from internet service providers. More than 1,200 documented complaints referred to Indiana’s ‘Internet Crimes Against Children’ task force, majority for child pornography. Detective Bryan Brown, investigating 10-15 child exploitation cases at any given time.

“The number of social media sites there are for young people to use, just increases opportunities for predators to set up their profiles to look for vulnerable teens to look on those different locations,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Schellenbarger.

Most social media sites have age restrictions. But there’s really nothing stopping a news reporter or 46-year-old man from lying about who they are.

Teen dating site ‘Mylol says users must be between 13 and 19. But preference settings allow you to match with someone up to 25. A 27-year-old, Zachary Coleman of Evansville allegedly used it too. Court documents show he had sex with a 12 year old from Owensboro he met on ‘Mylol.’ About 300 Tri-State teens currently have profiles on the site, possibly exposing them to pedophiles.

“They don’t have to go hang out by the playground or work in an ice cream truck. They sit online and know these are where all the kids are congregating on vine or Snapchat or Facebook. So they put themselves where they’re around them,” says Brown.

Social media site Skout, listed in court as to where 31-year-old Guangyu Ai, a soldier stationed at Fort Campbell, met a 13-year-old from Rockport and later allegedly had sex. Court records show in both cases, the social media conversations moved to private messages. And that’s something Brown says parents must avoid.

“The child’s privacy comes second, parents have got to be the first line of defense when it comes to this area. A lot of what I’m doing is reactive. The crime has already occurred. The child’s already been exposed to pornography they didn’t want or they’ve been solicited and they may not understand what the solicitation is because they’re not experienced or whatever the case may be. And now they’re exposed to something the parents now have to explain,” says Brown.

Detective Brown recommends parents require their children to explain how each downloaded app works and never allow them alone with devices in their bedroom. Hosting a sleepover? Instruct guests to keep all phones on the kitchen table. In addition to Mylol and Skout, Brown says apps like Kik Messenger, Whisper, Omegle and Snapchat have all turned up in criminal investigations. He strongly disagrees with letting children chat with strangers around the world, especially if photos are involved.

“It’s becoming a bigger problem because you have these anonymous chat apps and you have so much self-produced pornography of children that are 17 and under falling into the wrong hands.”

Six EVSC students tried in juvenile court for their role in what they thought was an anonymous Twitter account that spread nude photos of classmates. The tweets reached almost three-thousand followers in a matter of days. They’re charged with indecent display by youth, an Indiana law that took effect last year designed to address sexting amongst minors. It only applies to those under 18 and within four years of one another and doesn’t require jail time. Otherwise, they’d be charged with distribution of child pornography, a felony.

The ringleader of that case, a female student. Both men mentioned in the report are currently in local jails awaiting trial.

Sextortion, also a problem. Some of that stems from Snapchat, which is very popular with middle and high school students. Detective Brown says a good question to ask your kid, “why do you want to send a picture that disappears after a few seconds?” He says if it’s something that can’t be seen longer, it’s probably not a good idea. Especially there are other ways for the receiver to save that photo, which could lead to big problems.

Law enforcement agencies across the country work together on child exploitation cases since victims of the same predator may live in different areas. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which passes along that information to the right police agency.

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