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Experts educate community on internet safety

The internet can be a dangerous place for children. To help ward off predators and alert parents to risky online behavior, the West Seneca Central School District hosted an Internet Safety forum Dec. 9.

Detective Michael Hockwater of the Federal Bureau of Investigations’ Child Exploitation Task Force and Kathleen Gust from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children shared with the community what to watch for while children use the internet.

“Hopefully when you leave here you won’t be too scared and go home and take your child’s phone away and put it in a safe. That’s not the goal here, but it’s good to be informed,” Hockwater said at the beginning of the forum.

“We believe that having these conversations with your kids is the best way to protect them. Make them aware of the dangers, walk them through how to handle a situation,” Gust said.


For parents, Gust and Hockwater suggest the following:

Talk to your children – be educated on the issues and apps children are using, and talk to them about the dangers of online predators

Set a good example – show children that devices are not important by ignoring or silencing notifications

Delay access – disallow children from using non-age appropriate apps and websites

Limit access – children who are already using apps on smart devices should do so minimally

Look at devices – take the device, look at what children are doing online and talk to them about safety

Have child’s login to all accounts – ensure you are able to track your child’s phone and look at what they’re doing online

Be private – make sure that children are using privacy settings, posting appropriate images, and are not sharing their location

Use parental controls – set a password that won’t allow children to download apps or make purchases without your permission

Non-tech time – plan face-to-face time with friends and family, no devices allowed

Be involved – know who your child is spending time with and what they’re doing when they’re alone

Set boundaries – give children rules for use of devices outside of the home: at school and friends’ house

 

“Every day we’re getting calls from parents, kids and schools,” the detective said, sharing a video of a young girl becoming the victim of sexploitation. “This is the simple one. This is the one where there’s a creepy guy out there posing as a kid, getting the kids to do this bad stuff.”

He said what’s challenging is the fact that many teens are sharing nude photos and videos at will.

“If you were to take a random group of 100 students, probably 50 or 60 of them have either sent pictures to each other or received them from someone. This is how kids are communicating. They’re sending naked pictures back and forth,” Hockwater said.

Gust said the center covers all eight counties of Western New York.

“When it comes to the internet, the situations are pretty much all the same,” she said.

Gust said in regard to sexting, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has started a new service to help.

“If your child comes to you and says, ‘I shared an image…’ We have a service. You go to missingkids.org/GetHelpNow and we will help you get those images and wipe them the best we possibly can from the internet. We had so many kids coming to us with issues like this who had willingly shared an image and then found out that it was everywhere, and getting it down is a daunting task,” she said.

Hockwater said there’s no stopping risky online behavior.

“Years ago we’d tell you to put your computer in the living room or family room. Don’t let [children] have it in their bedroom. And that worked until every kid got a cellphone,” he said.

The detective said keeping children away from technology is not the answer – they need to learn and make mistakes.

The detective said when investigating or catching an online perpetrator, the IP address is most important.

“This is like your fingerprint to the internet. As soon as you click on and you are live on the internet your IP address is captured,” he said.

If a child is facing harassment or victimization, Hockwater advises parents not to block or delete the account but to switch the phone to airplane mode, turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and contact the authorities.

“Especially with the iPhones. IPhones have a sneaky way of still connecting to the internet even when airplane mode is on,” he said. “This way whatever’s on it stays on it. When I get it in my hands, whatever’s on it I’ll be able to recover.”

“When we investigate these crimes it’s so important early on that we’re notified because not all companies save data,” he said.

Facebook, Google and Yahoo preserve data containing user information, chat transcripts and photos aiding investigations of online crimes, Hockwater said, but mobile apps often do not.

TikTok, Snapchat, Kik and Instagram are among the top apps used by school age children according to Hockwater and pose the greatest problem when investigating crime.

“What’s on the device is what we have. None of those app companies save chats or any pictures,” he said.

Hockwater said Kik is by far the app used in most of his cases.

In Snapchat, Hockwater recommends using the app in Ghost Mode so the user location cannot be seen.

“Same thing with Instagram. Instagram will show your geolocation. Turn those settings off when you’re using the app so the bad guy doesn’t know where your kids are,” he said.

Another website the detective said parents should be aware of is Omegle, a random chat alternative.

“Interesting one, they put it right in their slogan, ‘Talk to Strangers.’ You don’t have an account on Omegle. You can go home tonight, google Omegle, and, boom, it pops up and you just start chatting with someone,” he said.

This site doesn’t use accounts to allow strangers to video chat, which means authorities have no way of tracking users, Hockwater said.

“It’s a good place for predators to start to try to hunt for kids,” the detective said.

“If you’re going to do it though I suggest you cover up your camera,” Gust added. “As soon as you log on it opens up your webcam and you see someone and they see you.”

Hockwater said the age where he’s seeing these crimes start keeps dropping. He said he has worked with victims as young as 10, and most often children are engaged in these activities by middle school.

“We’re trying to build trust with our kids,” Hockwater said. “You give them a little, you educate them, you give them a little more.”

“In my 30 years I’ve seen more kids mentally abused, physically abused, sexually abused with a phone than a gun,” Hockwater said. “That’s the Christmas lesson here before you buy your kid that brand new iPhone 11.”

To learn more about these issues or to seek help for a child involved in cybercrimes, visit missingkids.org/theissues or missingkids.org/gethelpnow.