Parents may be in the same room with their children and not even realize a predator is communicating with them through social media, according to the FBI.
The FBI-Chicago Division told NBC 5 Investigates a growing number of sexual predators are posing as “tweens” and befriending kids and young teens by using apps such as Kik, Snapchat, Instagram and ooVoo.
“They use social engineering and they use cons to get these kids to build up that trust in that relationship and then possibly send images,” said FBI Special Agent Wes Tagtmeyer.
A northwest suburban mother said two years ago her 11-year-old daughter sent naked photos of herself to someone she met on a popular social media site. She said the recipient was someone who claimed to be a boy at her school.
“I think she probably felt special that he was asking for pictures and he kept asking and asking and she said ‘no’ and then it was like, ‘you go first’,” the mother recalled. NBC 5 Investigates is not using the mother’s name in order to protect the identity of her daughter.
The mother said she found photos of both of her child and the other person on her mobile phone.
Police never found the person responsible for soliciting photos from her daughter. But word of the incident spread.
“Once you put a picture out there it really does grow like grassfire,” she said.
The mother said it was a difficult lesson to learn and two years later the incident still impacts her child.
“We try to help her deal with the feelings and the regret,” the mother said.
The FBI said predators may also threaten victims in to sending more photos in a growing crime known as sextortion.
“The subject comes back and says ‘if you don’t do this or send a more explicit image or video for me, then I’m going to send this image to your parents’,” Tagtmeyer said.
According to the FBI, the average age of a sextortion victim is fourteen. The FBI has investigated victims as young as eight-years-old.
The FBI recommends parents closely monitor their childrens’ mobile device usage and have age-appropriate discussions about the dangers of communicating with strangers online and sending photos and videos. They also urge parents not to allow their kids to charge their devices in their bedrooms at night and to set up passwords for downloading apps.
Eirene Heidelberger is a mother of three boys and said she keeps a close eye on who her kids chat with and what apps they use.
“We all have equal access to each other’s phones,” Heidelberger said. “We know each other’s passwords and at any time I can pick it up and see who they’re speaking to and I also follow all their social media feeds.”
Heidelberger said it’s a great way to connect with her children.
NBC 5 Investigates reached out to Kik, Snapchat, Instagram and ooVoo for comment. A spokesperson for ooVoo responded by saying the company takes security and privacy issues very seriously and roots out and deletes any suspicious accounts against which suspicious behaviors have been reported.
NBC 5 Investigates contacted “My Mobile Watchdog” for information related to this story. The company created a digital tool that allows parents to monitor their kids’ mobile device usage.
Snapchat has over 100 million daily users and has a dedicated team that reviews abuse reports and takes action when they become aware of a violation. It also partners with safety experts to help parents, teachers and teens find safety tips.