Traffickers use social media to target victims

(WANE Photo)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Posting, liking, commenting and sharing social media posts has become part of daily life for many people, but those posts can turn into targets for sex traffickers.

“It takes 24 hours to traffic a kid from the time they meet them online. 24 hours,” Cathie Bledsoe, the Indiana State Police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Youth Educator said.

Social media is designed to connect people, but it also makes it easier for predators to connect with their next victim.

“Social media has opened up access,” an undercover agent at the Fort Wayne FBI office, said. ” Before, you had to go sit in front of a school or other places where kids play to find kids who might be susceptible. Now you just hop online.”

Many cases of sex trafficking start on the Internet and seem harmless at first.

“People want to hear that they’re handsome or special or smart. They’ll tell you that,” the FBI agent said. “If you put on there everything your parents don’t understand, how easy is it for me to pop up online and say it doesn’t have to be like that. You’ll get your hair done. You’ll get your nails done. You’ll eat three times a day. I’ll give you a warm place to stay, nice hotels.

It’s called grooming. Traffickers will monitor posts, pick their target and prey on their weaknesses.

“Traffickers look for naïve children and kids who are needy. If they’re talking about their sad mood or they’re depressed, that’s a kid I can recruit. I can find a way into their life. I can make them feel better. Oh, you want to be a model? I can help you be a model,” Bledsoe said.

The person on the other side of the screen could also ask for nude pictures from their victim, promising they’ll keep them private. But then sexting can quickly turn into sextortion, which is basically cyber blackmail, threatening to share the provocative pictures unless the trafficker gets what they want.

The person on the other side of the screen could also ask for nude pictures from their victim, promising they’ll keep them private. But then sexting can quickly turn into sextortion, which is basically cyber blackmail, threatening to share the provocative pictures unless the trafficker gets what they want.

Some social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are pretty well-known. But Bledsoe said many times predators will meet a victim on one of those sites and then convince them to chat on lesser-known sites, like Kik or Yik Yak or ChatRoulette.

“Every day there are new apps, new ways predators can get to our children,” Bledsoe said.

“Stop worrying about making your kids mad at you. But, if you’re that parent, ask leading questions. Say, ‘Hey, I heard about Kik. Can you show me what Kik is about?’ Start asking them to teach you,” Bledsoe said.

Bledsoe gives her Internet safety presentations to groups across the state. If you’d like an ICAC Youth Educator to come to your organization, contact Bledsoe at CBledsoe@isp.IN.gov.

Just last week RemedyLIVE teamed up with police and Fort Wayne Community Schools to help educate parents about dangerous mobile apps and how to talk to their kids.

“Don’t be a helicopter parent and try to boss them around with this stuff. Just say, ‘Look. We’re in this together.’ The generation gap’s got to close and let’s make this thing work together so we can have a safe community,” Clinton Faupel, the executive director and co-founder of RemedyLIVE, said.

“Don’t just say sex trafficking is bad and let’s talk about it and that’s the topic of the day,” Corbin  Landrum, a senior at Huntington North High School, said. “Make it as comfortable as possible. The more casual and comfortable you can make it is the way to go.”

Landrum was part of a class project on human trafficking and helped make a video depicting how quickly someone can get trapped in the sex trade.

“A lot of times people are coerced into it and don’t know until they’re in it,” he said. “[The traffickers] say, ‘Oh, I’m your best friend. Boyfriend. Girlfriend.’ You think you love him and he asks for a favor and you think you don’t have a choice. But, that’s not true. If you’re not comfortable with something, tell them.”

Landrum wants more teens to think through their social media posts.

“If I post this is, is that going to attract something I don’t want? If I post this, is it going to attract something I do want,” he said is what should be the thought process before clicking post.

The hope is if teens and parents are both more aware of the potential dangers behind social media, fewer kids will fall victim to predators’ practices.

“I want us to be so aware that any human trafficking rings of any size say there’s no chance we’ll make it in fort Wayne because there’s so much education,” Faupel said.

Next Thursday at 6 p.m., the Hidden Predators series concludes with a final story about how law enforcement and agencies across the state are fighting back against sex trafficking.

Great KIDS make Great COMMUNITIES and Allen Superior Court are hosting a free training seminar on Wednesday, February 22 from 9:30 a.m. – 11 a.m. at the Allen County Public Library Theater (Lower Level 2) located at 900 Library Plaza in downtown Fort Wayne.

The workshop will focus on defining human trafficking, understanding the scope of he issue, recognizing risk factors and red flags, identifying trafficked youth, and connecting with resources and services. It’s free, but seating is limited. Participants need to register here. 

NewsChannel 15 is also hosting a panel discussion on human trafficking next Thursday at 7 p.m. The panel will be streamed live on wane.com and you can ask the panel your questions about human trafficking. Use the form below or post questions to Facebook or Twitter using #HiddenPredators.

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