COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- For many adults, “stranger danger” was taught to them as kids; watch out for the “creepy van”; never take candy from strangers. However, in 2022, such tropes aren’t only outdated, but out of touch with reality. In today’s technological world, strangers, in many cases, have much easier access to our children than ever before, and they’re harder to detect, and they’re preying on our children in Colorado.
There’s a task force in Colorado Springs dedicated to catching child predators online. And since the pandemic, the number of cyber-tips they’ve received has skyrocketed.
"We've had 8-year-old victims from this,” said John Armbruster, with Homeland Security Investigations.
Armbruster helps lead the ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force) team based in Colorado Springs. His team has arrested 92 child predators over the last three years.
"We've got technology that lets strangers into our house,” he said. "We're talking major social media platforms: TikTok, Instagram, Snap … So it's still stranger danger but you can't recognize stranger danger."
Since the pandemic, the number of cyber-tips they’ve received from such apps has gone up 41 percent.
"It’s just like a park in the 80s. Kids are out playing and you got a guy sitting over there watching. Except you don't know it's a dirty old man, you think it's one of your peers,” said Armbruster.
The most common cases investigators see? Blackmail: children being exploited, and coerced into taking pictures of themselves.
According to Armbruster, it most commonly happens on Snapchat.
"My kids bug me constantly to let them get a Snapchat account and I tell them 'no.' It's not happening. Because I know what happens with Snapchat,” he said.
Armbruster calls Snapchat the “bane” of ICAC’s existence.
"You have no idea who people are. So you hide behind your avatar,” he said, also noting that Snapchats don’t disappear forever, as promised because predators can easily screen record. They then use those recordings, many times from other states or countries, and turn them into sextortion.
“They will turn that into blackmail… ‘if you don't send me more pictures, then I'm going to send this to everybody in your school.'”
One out of twelve kids has exchanged messages with sexual predators. One out of twenty has arranged a meeting with someone they met online. Three out of ten parents allow kids to use the internet without restrictions.
Many times, predators hide behind a child-like avatar through online gaming. For instance, with Roblox, being one of the most popular online games for kids, Colorado investigators have seen their suspicious activity involving kids go up nearly seven-fold since the start of the pandemic.
Newschannel 13 reached out to Roblox for comment to no avail. However, they do have a section on their website dedicated to parents, safety, and moderation.
A spokesperson for Snapchat did respond, noting that they have made it harder for predators and strangers to find teens and detect abuse, also saying:
"Any sexual abuse of children is abhorrent and illegal and we have dedicated teams that work closely with law enforcement, experts, and industry partners to combat it. We prohibit young people under the age of 13 from using Snapchat, and we have extra protections for Snapchatters under 18 that make it even harder for them to be discovered and contacted by people they don’t know. Our new set of parental tools, Family Center, allows parents to monitor who their teens are communicating with on Snapchat and report any concerning accounts to us to investigate."
Emi Holt, who grew up in Texas and now lives in Colorado Springs, survived childhood grooming from online predators. She also stumbled into a dangerous path on a seemingly innocuous website.
"I remember, when I was eleven, was the first time, I remember speaking to someone who said they were in their thirties, on NeoPets, of all places,” she said.
Neopets is simply an online game where users care for a virtual pet. But, Holt’s experience had several red flags when it came to the other users with whom she interacted.
"They were saying weird things that I didn't know anything about because I was eleven. And it turns out, looking back, it was grooming. It was an older man trying to talk to a young girl,” she said.
One user cornered her into a blackmail situation.
"He told me if I didn't send him pornographic images of my underage self that he would post my picture on porn websites. This grown man is telling this 16-year-old girl this,” said Holt.
NewsChannel 13 reached out to NeoPets for comment. They said:
“Neopets takes the safety and security of our users seriously. For over 20 years, we’ve utilized one of the strongest whitelist and blacklist filters in the industry as it relates to communication between players and monitor usage for words, phrases, and terms and notify authorities of any situations that are dangerous or improper. We have and always will have, permission-based usage for those under 13.”
But possible threats come from all corners of the web. Holt said she grew up with little to no support and ended up turning to strangers on several websites and apps in order to find it.
"We wish, as parents, we had a magic wand,” said Liz Hahn, a senior instructor with Kid Power.
"The relationship and trust you build with your kid is just as important as the apps you can put on a phone,” said Hahn.
Kid Power is a worldwide organization that teaches safety skills to families while empowering kids in order to help keep them safe. They’ve been in Colorado since the 90s, training more than 60,000 kids in Colorado alone.
"We want to figure out how we can get our kids to trust us, to come to us when something comes up. When they are curious and they're typing something into the search engine or they happen to stumble upon something, and so how are we going to react when they come to us with that and how do we build that trust?” said Hahn.
Kid Power’s biggest advice? Simply be present, listen, and keep communication open.
"Teens in particular, when they feel supported, when they feel acknowledged, that helps build that trust in that relationship with us as parents, which in turn is how we can keep them safe online. Because they are then empowered to come to us if something makes them feel uncomfortable,” said Hahn. "Having regular and frequent conversations with our kids is powerful,” said Hahn.
"[Say] you’re not going to get in trouble. There might be accountability that still happens with what happens online but you're not going to get in trouble. You're not going to get your technology taken away necessarily, but it opens up that line of communication,” she said.
But after having open, honest conversations, how do you at least monitor your child’s tech?
#1. Location settings: When you download a new app for your child, and it asks for your location, click “don’t allow”.
#2. Privacy settings/Online Chat: especially with online gaming, make sure your child’s settings don’t allow playing or chatting with “everyone.”
#3. Don’t allow your child to switch platforms in order to keep interacting with an online stranger. ICAC commonly sees children become victims after being asked to switch platforms, for instance, from online gaming to social media.
Holt certainly wishes she would have had parental guidance and love when she was a child. And now she’s hoping, by telling her story, she can prevent another child from becoming a victim.
"You just want to vet who's following your kid. And make sure they're not posting everything publicly,” she said.
"Parents need to love their kids ... shower them with the love or they're going to look for it somewhere else,” said Holt.
"My life would have been a lot different if I had someone there to monitor what I was doing."
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