Predators can be lurking in every corner of the internet.
That includes popular games like Fortnite, or seemingly innocuous sites like YouTube.
The Missourian met with Franklin County Sheriff’s Department officials specializing in internet crimes against children following new charges against Daniel T. Avetta, a Catawissa man who posed as a woman to lure minors to his home.
Avetta, known as Jessica Gables to some, was served with a warrant Sept. 4 in Lincoln County where he is being held after pleading guilty to 12 felonies in federal court last month.
Avetta will be sentenced Nov. 8 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District in St. Louis, on four counts of production of child pornography, six counts of receipt of child pornography and two counts of online enticement of a minor.
Detective Sgt. Jacob Walk, a member of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, said the key to keeping children safe is knowing exactly what they do online.
“Know about your kids’ social media applications,” Walk said. “Know what apps kids are on and what they are used for.”
He explained cases against predators targeting children of all ages have been increasing since 2013.
“We see more and more every year,” Walk commented. “Kids are going online at earlier ages.”
Sheriff Steve Pelton added that children are getting phones and tablets at an earlier age, noting it is not uncommon for children in the single digits to get a device.
“Be actively involved,” Pelton said. “It is important to familiarize yourself with that device — kids are naturally curious.”
Walk encourages parents to learn how their children’s devices work by simply googling them, or having their children show them.
“Try and figure it out,” he said. “If you don’t understand how a site works how can you protect your kids? How can you protect a child online if you can’t access the device?”
And once children have those devices, they learn from older children about a number of applications that could put them in danger according to Detective James Briggs, who also investigated the Avetta case.
“A lot of times they know because they have older brothers and sisters,” he noted. ”Kids are learning younger and younger.”
Oftentimes children are issued devices in schools.
“Sit and talk with your kids,” Walk said. “They can talk with any stranger in the world. I have worked cases where predators convince children to come to them. That’s when it gets really bad.”
Predators work to groom children, giving then attention.
“That’s when kids get into trouble,” Walk said. “They get the attention and then they are exploited online.”
Walk stated parents should set time limits on when and how long children should be online.
The evening is a good time for parents can take the devices, put them into their own rooms to charge them, and check out what the devices have been used for that day, he said.
“A kid doesn’t need to go into the bedroom alone with a phone or tablet,” he said. “When kids get in trouble, a lot of times they are alone in their room.”
Other ways that activity can be hidden is through apps that hide photos and other files.
For example, a deceptive application that had been popular for some time appeared to be a calculator. When the app is opened the user must provide a code into what appears to be a calculator screen but instead hides images.
“I am constantly playing catch-up,” Walk noted, on the constantly changing apps.
Authorities suggest parents continue to educate themselves on new technology and new platforms. A useful tool can be found at www.kidsmartz.org, or through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website at www.missingkids.org.
The site offers guidelines and tips to protect children online, and in the real world. There also is a pledge parents can have their children sign setting perimeters of their internet use.
Locally, there are resources available through the sheriff’s office including public forums to educate parents about trends, and dangers to children.
The “social media and your children” forum will be Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m. in the Union High School theater.
“We will highlight recent cases, like Avetta and others that have happened in Frank County, and dangers children face,” said Briggs.
There will be a D.A.R.E. officer on hand to meet with school-aged children while parents are at the forum.
According to Walk, parents should be keeping tabs on their children’s online activities through various social media sites. That includes messages among friends, knowing who they are friends with and who is contacting them.
“Check their friends’ list — if they don’t actually know a person they probably shouldn’t be friends online,” he said.
Walk explains that predators pose as children, the same as age potential victims.
“A creeper or a pervert is not going say he is a 30-year-old man, he will pretend to be the same age,” he said.
It can be challenging and frustrating because some apps, like Snapchat, have features that delete messages once they have been open.
“The messages disappear, it hides (things) if there is something nefarious,” said Walk, who also suggests parents check privacy settings on their children’s account.
“Have it locked down so the (public) can’t just log in and see everything on the page, only friends can see the information,” he said.
Walk noted that children should be careful of the images and comments they post on social media sites.
“Explain that anything inappropriate, once it is posted, can be online forever,” he said. “Don’t post anything that could come back to haunt you.”
He said posts and images can be archived, screenshot and shared.
“It is never necessarily private — talk about the consequences,” Walk said. “It is possible that there would be criminal charges if someone involved is under age.”
He also suggests to check privacy settings on apps so they do not “geo tag” photos and posts. Through the phone’s GPS, a predator can know the exact location of a child in those instances.
Another tip is to be aware of surroundings. According to Walk, anytime a video is shot through YouTube or similar sites, predators have the capability to record the video frame by frame. If their address, or a utility bill is in the background, predators know exactly where a potential victim lives.
The minimum age children can be on many sites, including Facebook, is 13.
“They are not mature enough to be on these sites,” Walk said. “It is important to know what is the appropriate age for apps.”
He also urges parents to report suspicious activity to the application where it occurs. Social media companies are mandated by federal law to report those instances to authorities.
Children of all ages can be targeted. Authorities recently investigated a case where a child under the age of 10 was being contacted by an older man through the game of Minecraft.
Walk said popular games, such as Fortnite, present an opportunity for children to talk with anyone.
“It is a matter of time before we have more of these cases,” he added. “Predators know the online games kids are playing.”
Gaming systems like X-Box live also are opportunities for predators to reach children online.