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FBI warns of predators targeting kids on social media

FBI warns about predators targeting kids on social media
FBI warns about predators targeting kids on social media 03:50

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Modern technology has connected people all over the world, but it's also become an avenue for predators to victimize children, and our devices are making it easier and easier with new messaging and video apps. 

Federal investigators say a harmless conversation can quickly become dangerous. 

We're more connected than ever before. In seconds you can speak, text or even video call someone anywhere around the world. But as we've seen time and again, modern technology also has a dark side.  

"Social media and online applications have become the primary tool for subjects to identify, groom and sexually exploit children," said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Timothy Wolford.

According to the FBI, if a child creates a profile with little to no barriers, predators find them almost instantly.

"Anywhere within 15-20 minutes, I'm probably going to have a handful of requests from predators who are trying to get illicit pictures and videos from me," said Wolford. 

And Special Supervisory Agent Timothy Wolford says it doesn't matter which apps your kids use.

"I would say there's an inherent danger on any of these apps and really on any social media," said Wolford.

In fact, he says instead of being worried about your kid going to the park alone, you should be more worried about them being online alone. He says that's the world where your child needs the most supervision these days.

"I would argue that the kid who's alone in his room with an iPad or an iPhone is at a much greater risk than the kid who is just down the street playing at the park," Wolford said.

Wolford says apps that allow kids to post videos, photos and livestreams are among the most concerning. While you may think your child is posting something harmless, he says predators can quickly turn it into something else.

"We've seen cases where that picture is superimposed on a pornographic image, and now that person is using that image to extort the child," Wolford said.

Former U.S. Attorney David Hickton now works with the Pitt Cyber Institute. He says in many cases, it's children under 10 who are the biggest targets.

"It's the position of trust which is part of the profile. It's the grooming of the child through outreaches which seem to be innocent and then progress across the spectrum to be very dangerous," Hickton said.

Wolford says it can be as simple as a child playing a game online with people they don't know then one of those other players asks to talk to them on a different app.

"That might seem like an innocent request because they want to talk about the game or talk about whatever they are engaging in, but then the conversation starts to become sexually explicit," Wolford said.

The FBI says a big trend right now is for predators to pose as a teenage girl, lure a teenage boy into sending sexually explicit pictures or videos, then threaten to release them to the public unless they pay up. That's why Wolford says it's so important for parents to know what apps their children are using on all of their devices and always set parental controls.

"If they see an app that pops up that they didn't authorize, they need to understand what that app is, why they're on it and what they're using it for," Wolford said.

In addition to parental controls, both experts say there's also spyware you can use to monitor your children's moves online.

But Hickton says just watching your kid's behavior might be all the warning signs you need to realize something is off. He says if your child is being evasive or secretive about what they're doing online or on their devices, it's probably time for a talk. And if something is wrong, he says don't hesitate to call police.

"If you see anything in terms of the use of the social media sites and these apps, you should move as quickly as possible," Hickton said.

And perhaps most disturbing -- both Hickton and Wolford say with the ever-increasing advancements of artificial intelligence, it could become even easier for online predators to strike yet still stay hidden.

"I think we're going to have to sharpen our game and work very hard to work with this. As technology continues to improve, it's going to be a greater challenge," Hickton said.

They say as a parent, you're the first line of defense, and that's why it's important to have the kind of relationship with your kids where they're comfortable enough to tell you anything, but especially when they've gotten themselves into a dangerous spot online.

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