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Predators lurking online: How does the internet put children at risk?

CHARLOTTE — Here’s a question for parents, grandparents and anyone who cares for children: Would you ever leave your front door open and let anyone in the world walk in, into to your child’s bedroom, any time of day or night? Shut the door and be in there with them alone? Of course not.

But, if you let your kids have a phone, tablet, video game, social media -- anything with a communication feature, that’s what experts say you’re doing if you’re not monitoring it and setting some rules.

Channel 9′s Erica Bryant learned an “epidemic” of sexual predators are using these devices to try and hurt our kids.

9 INVESTIGATES: PREDATORS LURKING ONLINE

Over the past year, Bryant has been tracking cases prosecuted through the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Every week, she has seen cases like that of Frank Cromwell from Boone, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Cromwell had an internship as an athletic trainer at Watauga High School. He used Snapchat to convince minors that he was a girl, coercing them to send him explicit images and videos.

“So that’s something actually very common we see, where adults are pretending, misusing images of other people,” said former Assistant U.S. Attorney Cortney Randall. “Sometimes pictures they get from other kids, and pretending to be that kid to get additional images from new victims.”

Bryant talked to a former local assistant U.S. attorney, a youth health advocate, a teen, and parents. She uncovered what’s really going on, how our children are at risk and got answers to give you the tools to protect the most vulnerable members of our family.

‘He hurt many children’

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports tips about predators soliciting kids online have nearly doubled.

Bryant started looking into this months ago, when she noticed a slew of back-to-back cases. It seemed like every other day, there was a hearing and sentencing on child sex crimes in our area.

Former AUSA Randall sat down with Bryant to discuss a historic case in North Carolina and the alarming trend they’re seeing.

“I would say we’re seeing an increase not only in number, but also in the severity of cases we see,” Randall said.

Randall spent years seeking justice for child victims of sex crimes. This summer, her team won a historic conviction.

“Mr. Hoover’s case was particularly egregious,” Randall said.

Michael Scott Hoover worked for Wells Fargo. When an internal investigation reportedly found he used his work cell phone to produce child porn, the bank reported it to law enforcement.

“He was a well known individual in his community who preyed on some very vulnerable children, and abused that trust in order to seek sexual gratification for himself,” Randall said. “In doing so, he, he hurt many children.”

Agents discovered Hoover sexually abused at least eight young boys over the course of more than 10 years -- sometimes at his home, in his car and on camping and other overnight trips, when Hoover volunteered to take the children as a chaperone.

For his crimes, Hoover was sentenced to 70 years in prison, the longest sentence ever imposed on a child predator in the Western District of North Carolina.

Statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children highlight a drastic rise in child sex crimes. The agency found that from 2019 to 2020, the number of tips regarding online enticement, which is when someone solicits a child online, jumped by 97%.

“If there is a communication feature on any sort of app, website, game that you play -- a perpetrator can use that to solicit and exploit a child,” Randall said.

She added families need to know that any child can be a victim and any adult can be a perpetrator.

“We’ve had bank employees, we’ve had attorneys, we’ve had detention officers, college professors, volunteer firefighters, boy scout volunteers, teachers -- literally it can be anybody,” she said.

Parents must be vigilant as the first line of defense.

“If you see something, if your child comes to you, if you find something on their phone, if a friend comes to you and tells you something -- report it to us on the cyber tip line,” Randall said. “Contact local law enforcement, because even if you’re able to keep your child from being a victim, I’m sure that predator is going to find another victim.

“So please, please, please report it if you see anything.”

Randall couldn’t stress this enough; if you see something suspicious, please speak up. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a cyber tip line you can call if you find anything suspicious that you want to report. To protect your child or other children, law enforcement wants to hear from you. Call 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678). You can also report online by clicking here.

Predators can use social media to target kids

Predators are targeting kids, with easier access now than ever before. During the pandemic, many children were on their devices more often and cases of online enticement spiked.

Bryant spent months looking into the issue and the ways we can protect our children. Through her research, she discovered if a child is on any social media with a chat feature, chances are they have been solicited.

As Alexa Ziegler scrolls through her direct messages, her inbox is filled with unwanted messages. The messages read “hello pretty” and, “I was going through your profile picture. It is said that a beautiful profile picture is worth 1,000 words” and, “I’m looking for a sugar baby to take care of her needs, rent and pay her weekly allowance. $7,000 via PayPal.”

Ziegler is 18 and she’s being solicited by a stranger on Instagram.

“There’s this weird old man. Weekly allowance of $7,000,” she dead. “Like that is scary.”

It’s scary for the teen and for so many other young people who can be vulnerable.

“It is easier for you to be more trusting because maybe you want that attention. You want that money,” Ziegler said. “Like if you’re in a situation like that, I think you’re at a higher risk of responding or engaging with that.”

“Would you call it an epidemic?” Bryant asked Randall. “Absolutely,” she replied.

Randall says hiding behind a screen, predators can pretend to be kids themselves; enticing children to send them images, grooming them or sometimes extorting them and creating child porn.

Take 32-year-old Martin Lee McGee of Morganton, who investigators said had more than 13,000 photos and videos of the sexual abuse of minors -- some as young as toddlers. McGee posted his collection with other criminals on social media.

“They also just use them among themselves to trade images,” Randall said. “That’s what Mr. McGee was doing. He was using Snapchat to trade images with other people.”

Officials said they learned about him when someone called the cyber tip line. McGee was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison.

Platforms like Snapchat try to combat situations like this by reporting people who misuse the apps, but it’s not fool proof.

“Because someone can just then set up a whole new email account and a new username they can get back on. And that’s something Mr. McGee was doing,” Randall said. “He was repeatedly setting up new accounts, and just getting right back on and engaging in more criminal behavior.”

That’s why experts say parents must be their child’s first line of defense.

“I don’t engage, I block most of those accounts,” Ziegler said.

And parents must prepare them to protect themselves in this space.

“It’s totally going to happen. If your kid has a social media account, there’s going to be a random person that is going to DM them, but the best thing to do is have that conversation with them and be like ‘hey this person, like you have no idea who they are,’” Ziegler said.

‘It’s very, very scary’

For 24 years, Libby Saffrit has led Teen Health Connection which provides thousands of adolescents’ medical and behavioral healthcare.

But recently, she had a challenge in her own family.

“I had a younger relative who was involved with another player that they had met on a video game site through a chat function, and they became romantically involved,” she said. “We knew this was really a dangerous place and cautioned and warned, and quite frankly, this young teen didn’t believe us.”

So, she took action. She got the person’s photo and did a reverse-image Google search. Her findings:

“This was a stock photo, this person didn’t even exist! It’s very, very scary for our relative and for our entire family because there had been lots of personal information -- where we live, what school they attended -- that had been disclosed online to this stranger,” Saffrit told Bryant. “And all of this happened, Erica, on a school-issued Chromebook.”

It’s a common scenario that can turn criminal. Experts say virtual strangers are targeting kids who are now spending much more time online.

“Perpetrators are getting easier access to our children in our community. And they’re using that to solicit them and eventually sexually exploit them,” Randall said.

Take 32-year-old Joshua Michael Reed. Investigators said he used the Kik messenger app to communicate with an FBI undercover agent, who he thought was a 13-year-old girl. He tried to get the “girl” to send him nude photos and to arrange a meeting.

Reed is actually a former Charlotte attorney. In his home, agents said they found evidence of more Kik chats between Reed and females who claimed to be minors. The feds also seized numerous electronic devices that contained photos of the sexual abuse of children.

Reed was sentenced to 10 years behind bars.

The case serves as a warning to families that predators are searching for any way into.

“We’ve seen chats with children as young as 8 or 9 years old, all the way up to age 17,” Randall said. “We see them come from all different parts of our community. We see children who have been solicited through their Xbox or through online gaming -- it’s not just the apps.”

Saffrit adds that the pandemic made things even worse. The isolation put young people at a real disadvantage and made them even more vulnerable.

“So teenagers, their developmental milestones are all about relationships, how to interact within the world, whether that’s with an intimate or friendship, or even a professional relationship, learning how to have their first job, or how to drive and navigate with traffic, relationships, relationships, relationships,” Saffrit said. “During the pandemic, they weren’t given the opportunity to develop and meet those developmental milestones.”

That’s why Teen Health Connection developed a new, free tool to help parents navigate this space to keep children safer.

“We believe that parents are a teen’s first line of defense. We actually created an online virtual parenting program,” Saffrit said. “Topic is teens and technology. Because parents need to know this is a whole new world. The things that are happening, the things that our kids have access to that are just unimaginable.”

Saffrit says the key for parents is to take the journey with our children; its to be empathetic, not overbearing, condescending or pointing fingers.

Resources

Teen Health Connection has a free “Teens and Technology” course online for parents to help them learn to better protect their children in this social media age. Click here for more information. You can also click here for information about other courses they offer.

Screen Strong has resources for parents who want to take their kids and/or families off social media altogether. Click here for information. Screen Strong also has information for parents interested in getting a phone for their child that isn’t a smartphone. Read more here.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also has a cyber tip line you can call if you find anything suspicious that you want to report. To protect your child or other children, law enforcement wants to hear from you. Call 1-800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678). You can also report online by clicking here.

Common Sense Media put together a list of safer social media and messaging apps for children. You can click here for more information.

VIDEO: Predators lurking online: Anchor Erica Bryant explains her investigation



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