MUSKEGO - In a world where predators can get at children in chats that are hidden behind innocent looking cellphone games, parents have to be just as wily as those who want to prey on their children, three special agents from the Wisconsin Department of Justice told a Muskego audience recently.
The agents from the DOJ internet crimes against children unit armed more than 60 parents in the audience with knowledge about how to do that at a child internet safety presentation. It was given at the Muskego Circle, S63 W13694 Janesville Road, Muskego.
The stakes for the parents and their children is high. Predators hunt children to get nude pictures, to meet them to abuse them or to have sex with them.
They get at children by chatting with them over the internet using any of hundreds of apps or Facebook or Twitter. Especially sinister are the so-called hidden apps. When a parent opens them up, he or she finds only innocent games or calculators. But type in a secret code, and folders of secret chats their child has had and pictures they have launched into the internet world are revealed.
A parent wanting to see if their child has any hidden apps allowing clandestine liaisons, should see how much data each app uses, said Special Agent Lindsay Conrad. A dead give-away is a calculator app that uses as much data as speaking on the phone, she said. A calculator that uses that much data isn't a calculator, she said.
Even Xbox and PlayStation game systems can open a child up to predators, if the game can connect to the internet, Special Agent Mellissa Fus said. The only good thing about that is parents can turn off the game's ability to reach the internet, she said.
The agents offered several danger signs that parents can look for that a predator may have gotten to their children - rejecting family members, being upset when they are not online, minimizing the screen when parents come into the room, lingerie or cosmetics that parents didn't buy for the child, a drop in grades at school, sleep deprivation, lack of human interaction, not wanting to go to school, behavior change.
And a big one is not wanting anything to do with the computer or cellphones.
If parents see any of that, Fus said adamantly: "Ask questions."
Check it out
Ideally, children should chat only with people they know personally, said Special Agent Lindsay Conrad.
Parents can find out if that is happening by checking their children's phones and other devices to see who they send to most and receive from the most, she said. Also, look for weird user names, she advised.
On most apps, parents can see who their children have been talking to recently, Conrad said. There is usually a list and parents should be able to click on each person's name to see the chat logs.
Then parents should ask if their children have met those people, Conrad said.
Don't ask if they are friends, because children regard people they meet on the internet as friends, she said.
Parents shouldn't be surprised if they do find strangers among their children's chatting partners. Almost every hand goes up in school classrooms where the special agents ask who has chatted online with someone they don't know, Fus said. The agents also give internet safety talks in schools.
When the predators hook onto children, they befriend them. Sometimes they send them gifts of makeup, cellphones or lingerie, Fus said.
"If you see something that you have not bought, ask your child," Fus said. "And don't stop with one answer," keep probing.
If the predator is able to talk the child into sending a nude photo, he uses that photo as blackmail to get more pictures.
"They'll threaten to send it to their family or school," if the child doesn't send more photos, Fus said. "This is happening."
Can't arrest fast enough
There are so many predators trying to connect with girls that sting operations are extremely successful. Agents can hardly get the arrested predators out of the room fast enough to let the next ones in, said Special Agent Ryan Condon.
"In one night, we can have seven or eight arrests," he said. The ages of these predators are anywhere from 20 to 76, he said. "And they are all looking to have sex with kids."
And they'll travel well over an hour to meet the children, Fus added.
Condon demonstrated how quickly a pervert can get to a child.
He posted the message, "Hi, I'm a 14-year-old female" on an app called Random Chat. It pairs people up with anyone in the world. Within seconds, he got a video back of a man masturbating.
That same kind of random pairing with anyone in the world also happens with the popular Omegle app, Conrad added.
Check out apps
Parents who want to check out the apps on their children's phones or other devices have several options, the agents said. Information on games and apps can be found online on Google or any search engine, or on Wikipedia, Conrad said.
Parents also can ask other parents about games and apps and ask the school and the school police resource officer, she said.
The Department of Justice also has information for parents, she said.
One of the most important things for parents to do is to set their children's devices so that parental permission is needed to download anything, the agents said. Often, that means parents would have a password allowing the download.
Every time their children ask to add a game or app, parents need to do their research, the agents said.
They acknowledged that the problem is that the apps change so often.
"We are behind the kids," Fus said. "We figure out one app and they move on to a totally different app."
The predators move from app to app with them.
"If it's popular, this is the one predators use. They follow the kids," Condon said. If predators can do it, parents have to do it, too, the agents said.
Even Facebook can pose a threat, although less so now as children are getting away from it, Conrad said. Kids will someones create a secondary Facebook account and that is one they really use, she said.
Prents can lock Facebook accounts down to friends only through changing the privacy settings, if they know about the secondary account, she said.
The opposite of an ideal world where children chat only with people they know are the apps that will connect them with everyone in the world.
3.1 million fans
The presentation included a video of a boy who appeared to be barely 13 who has 3.1 million fans who watch him. He lip-syncs to music on an app called Musical.ly.
With watchers invited to comment on his performance, all he has to do is click on the comment and he is in instant communication with someone he doesn't know who could be anyone with any motives, the agents emphasized.
Another video, also on Musical.ly, showed a little girl who looked to be only 10 years old.
"Any freak can go on and direct chat," Condon said.
A parent in the audience was heard to exclaim, "Oh, my God."
Another remarked, "I thought I was a really smart mom. I guess I don't even know what's out there."
The agents offered quick rundowns on things to watch for in some apps that are popular right now based on problems they have seen. They are not saying to avoid these apps necessarily but to use good judgment. A few they reviewed are:
fastgram — it is more popular with children then Facebook; has chat features. It has privacy settings that parents can lock down.
Snapchat — It is evolving with new features, it's getting big, there are snap codes to watch for. Also receivers can now capture the messages and photos before they melt away and the sender will not know their messages are not gone.
Musical.ly — videos where anybody can dance and lip-sync to music; hundreds of thousands of fans see the posts; has direct messaging; the app can't be deleted, except possibly by writing to the company that the child is under age, but the child's profile will not be deleted
Kik — a super popular messaging app for text and photos; no manager of the app; more than likely children will be talking to people they don't know
Whisper — it's a site where people post secrets; it has messaging back and forth; the radius can be changed from a half mile radius to anywhere in the US
Yik Yak — it connects people within one or mile radius; if a stranger is contacted, he is in our neighborhood
The special agents recommend three links to online resources for parents:
protectkidsonlinewi.gov — these have updated podcasts about new apps and up to date online resources
netsmartz.org — this website has ideas on how to talk to kids about internet dangers
They also presented information to parents at the meeting about additional online resources: