Rachel Martin (*name has been changed) has always liked solving puzzles. She often dreamed of going into intelligence or law enforcement, but she never pictured herself working for a large federal agency (name omitted for privacy reasons) hunting down child predators.
The prospect wasn’t entirely appealing, given the toll the effort of tracking sexual predators can have on both sides. For the children and families being victimized, the experience is agonizing. For the law enforcement agents—especially a mother of two like Martin—trying to find offenders who are actively exploiting children can wreak havoc on one’s mental health. Law enforcement has one of the highest suicide rates for any profession in the US, just behind medical doctors and dentists, so Martin’s decision to take on the agency role was not taken lightly.
However, her calling to help won out and she now serves as an intelligence officer helping to find missing or exploited children, tracking sex offenders, and generating the information the agency needs to prosecute cases. Given her unique position as both a mother and an intelligence officer, Martin shared some tips on how to be vigilant about your children’s safety and curb the risk of your children developing dangerous relationships with potential predators.
Know What Platforms and Apps Your Kids Are On
Martin recommends keeping social media accounts to a minimum, and keeping necessary ones locked down so they are difficult for children to access. Even with seemingly harmless games like Minecraft, a potential predator can see your internet IP address. Criminals can use this information to track your actual, physical location.
Additionally, parents aren’t always aware of what different apps do, or who can get in touch with their children, but they should. Some apps, like Calculator% or Audio Manager, serve as an innocuous-looking front. When clicked, however, they lead to a lock screen that can access hidden photos and private materials.
Another app, Omegle, allows anonymous conversations online about anything, which can lead to in appropriate communications like sexting, fast. On its own site, Omegle warns, “predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful.” Adults on such apps can ask children and teens for information like their age and location, which kids may supply not realizing they don’t have to.
Your Kids Are Sexting Younger Than You Think
When asked the ages of her two young children, Martin hesitates–she’s very accustomed to keeping information about her children shielded from prying eyes. When asked what advice she has for families to keep children safe from predators, trafficking, cyber bullying and more, she doesn’t hesitate. She wants parents to not fool themselves into thinking that exposure to the uglier sides of life waits to start at a certain age.
“Kids as young as 10 are sexting, and they don’t understand the implications,” she explains. She relays that sadly, extortion can often follow after sexting. Predators realize the blackmail and black market sale value of possessing such materials, and will target victims’ families to get a pay day.
Extortion and Cyberbullying Often Accompany Exploitation
It is sadly not uncommon for predators to not only solicit inappropriate materials from victims but to also attempt to extort them by threatening to leak or distribute those materials. These extortion attempts carry both financial and psychological consequences. Martin shares the story of Amanda Dodd as a cautionary tale. Dodd was just a teenager when a man she met online flattered her and convinced her to flash him on an online video chat. He took a photo of her then proceeded to follow her online for years, asking for “another show”. While she refused, he distributed the image around to people close to her. After years of cyberbullying, she entered a downward spiral of drugs, sexual affairs and alcohol, ultimately taking her own life at just 15 years old. Martin warns predators like those in the Dodd case often have numerous victims.
Parents, Don’t Share Information on Social Networks
Martin monitors her children’s online and mobile app activity very closely. She doesn’t believe kids should be on Snapchat, for example. Snapchat is a popular messaging app that unintentionally but unmistakably changed the sexting game due to its design that deletes photos after they’ve been viewed. However, the recipient of a message can still screenshot images or stills from videos to keep a copy forever.
She also is very wary about parents who create social media accounts on behalf of their children or share photos and information about their children on their own accounts. This activity can inadvertently share children’s locations, where they go to school, where photos are often posted from (home, location). Combined with “check-in” information on tools like FourSquare, a predator can easily know where your family is or visits often. If you check into an airport, that predator can infer you will be traveling for some time. Even putting your children’s names and school name on your car can give a predator clues about how to find your family.
Most Victims Know Their Abuser
Martin explains that sometimes the perpetrators love the feeling of control that accompanies the exploitation of children. She warns that abusers can take advantage of relationships they already have with victims.The Saffron Centre, an organization dedicated to providing counseling to victims of sexual abuse, agrees: It states that a staggering 90% of child sexual abuse victims actually know their abuser. So for parents, it’s a wise precaution to get to know the people in their children’s inner circle.
Typically, Only Older Predators Have Had Time To Develop a Criminal Record by Now
Offenders that are older and aren’t tech savvy often already have a criminal record. Some younger tech savvy predators targeting victims for extortion, unfortunately, don’t always have records yet. She notes that Angel Watch watches foreign travel of registered sex offenders.
[Editor’s note: You can also use Spokeo to search criminal records via a reverse phone number lookup, name, user name, or by reverse searching addresses in your neighborhood with occupants you feel uncomfortable about.]
NCMEC Has Valuable Online Safety Resources for Parents
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) houses plenty of resources to help parents keep kids safe online. NCMEC also hosts Netsmartz.org, which has numerous articles and videos to help parents, teachers, and church leaders educate others.
[Editor’s Note: There are also great resources on protection and emotional healing on the National Criminal Justice Reference Service website.]
How to Use Spokeo for Internet Safety
Martin uses Spokeo to find the social media profiles, like Facebook profiles, of predators that she cannot find on Facebook itself. This can help her determine the locations where victims are being held, and identify perpetrators and those in their inner circle. She can also use it to confirm the identities of victims, and discern when these people are, in fact, underage. She can also search known perpetrators by their commonly used usernames and variations on those usernames to find social media profiles, recent addresses, relatives and phone numbers, etc.
The average parent can use Spokeo to see public records—like criminal records and sometimes arrest records (depending on the state where the record exists)—to know whether a neighbor, coach, friend’s parents, has a criminal background. This can include convictions for possession of child pornography, extortion, unlawful contact with a minor, criminal exploitation of a child, trafficking and more.