Agent Dennis Fetting shared the ways that predators gain access, how teens hide information from their parents, and a bit about the effects of cyberbullying.
“Everyone gets the idea that we should just share everything on social media and on chat rooms and chatting and sharing on gaming devices, and while it’s cool and entertaining there really is a dark side to a lot of that stuff,” Fetting said.
The dark side that Fetting describes often starts from talking to strangers online, usually in an innocent manner. A predator will pretend to be friendly even sending money or gifts, and eventually will ask for pictures.
Fetting said there is no way to take a picture off the Internet. Once it is sent, it is out there forever and may pop up again in a number of places, including child pornography sites. Even things like Snapchat and Burn Note, apps that advertise not saving sent pictures and texts, are not safe from allowing the information that is sent to end up anywhere else on the Internet.
Some of the most dangerous apps for children are ones that allow anonymous chatting through text and video. He said about 75 percent of predatory activity cases start through Kik messenger, an anonymous messaging app that does not require a phone number to use. Kik is attractive to predators because law enforcement has difficulty locating users with the information required by the app, a name, email and birth date, which can easily be false.
Omegle and Chat Roulette are some other apps rife with predators. This is a video chatting app that also allows anonymity and children can chat with strangers around the world.
Sometimes when a young person sends pictures or videos to an anonymous person, they are then manipulated into doing things under the threat of public exposure. The predator will make them send more pictures or do other tasks, saying that they will send the picture to everyone they know, including parents and teachers.
This is what is known as “sextortion.” This and other cases that involve children sending pictures of themselves to adults on the internet leads to criminal investigations from the Department of Homeland Security, legal battles and a lifetime of notifications to parents from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an organization that helps with AMBER alerts and child pornography cases.
“They are basically an approved repository for all child pornography videos. They catalogue and house these videos because of how this stuff spreads,” Fetting said.
He explained further that if agents in a different part of the country bust a predator and find images they have never seen, they send it to NCMEC. The image may be found in the database and help with the finding victims, or if the victim is already known, the parents will get a notification that their child’s image has been found. Parents then have the legal right to pursue damages from that predator.
“It’s not ever good news. It’s not a good notification. It’s really just an awareness thing,” Fetting said.
Sextortion cases do happen in Wilson County, but the most rampant issue among local children is sexting and cyberbullying, according to Fetting.
“Students in the highschools are absolutely sexting. Unfortunately there is a lot of peer-to-peer sexting among teens and they are using everything from those hidden calculator apps to Dropbox” Fetting said.
The hidden calculator app is common among teenagers and allows hidden pictures to remain on their device without parental detection. The icon looks like a calculator, and it requires a certain string of numbers as a password to access the hidden pictures. The pictures are usually sexual in nature, and can remain hidden behind the guise of a fully functioning calculator.
“This is going on in Lebanon High School, Station Camp High School, down in Williamson County. It is not just something that is intangible,” Fetting said.
False passcodes are also common, so if parents do find the app the teen may enter a false passcode and show that it is merely another way of storing innocent pictures.
Sexting is happening at a high rate in middle schools and high schools everywhere, according to Fetting. And Wilson County is not exempt.
“It is really humiliating to these kids when these pictures and videos get leaked out, and a lot of times they do get leaked out to other students and sometimes out to the world on websites, dating sites, you name it. There’s also a lot of bullying that goes along with that stuff.”
Cyberbullying is often tied to sexting. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying follows children home, can reach a wider audience at multiple schools, and is uncensored by authorities at school. A number of cyberbullying cases have led to suicide.
Parents may be up against a lot when it comes to keeping children safe online, but there are ways to protect children from online predators and sexting.
“The biggest thing is to lock everything down as private, especially if kids have social media accounts,” Fetting said. “Snoop a little bit and get involved, even if your kids don’t like it.”
Filtering and monitoring softwares are available for devices, and parental controls are often included under the device settings. Fetting suggested checking phones, accounts and devices regularly for unsafe apps and strange contacts.
For more information about talking to teens about sexting and staying safe online, visit netsmartz.org.
For reports of suspicious activity, agent Fetting may be reached at Dennis.M.Fetting@ice.dhs.gov or the Homeland Security office in Nashville at 615-664-5503.