Child predators finding victims through video games

Published: Feb. 16, 2017 at 4:32 PM CST
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The surging popularity of gaming comes with a new concern: the threat of online child predators.

Video gaming is a $23 billion industry, with 65 percent of all homes owning some kind of gaming device, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

In the last two months, the Wisconsin Department of Justice has seen cases where child predators are searching for victims by chatting through video games, according to WBAY-TV.

“A lot of predators are starting to move to gaming systems now,” said Special Agent Carl Waterstreet, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation.

Agent Waterstreet said predators use chat features meant for finding and talking to other players.

“It’s like social networking via video game consoles, so you’re trying to communicate with a bunch of randoms all over the world, which you have no idea who you’re communicating with,” said Waterstreet.

That’s where the problems begin. Waterstreet showed WBAY-TV how easy it is to chat with strangers.

He typed “hi” and almost instantly got a response from a child.

Waterstreet told WBAY-TV predators are searching for kids on games designed for kids. The type of games where parents and children may let their guard down.

“Like the Minecrafts and things like that,” says Waterstreet. “Because they’re trying to find a different way to infiltrate your child.”

“That’s a lot of what they do on every device is create these fake profiles to say, ‘I’m a 14-year-old boy from Milwaukee.’

“And really, they’re a 35-year-old man living in Green Bay,” Waterstreet says.

The agent says predators can search by randomly picking a name. Waterstreet typed in “Sarah.” Within a few clicks, he found all the information a predator would need to target a child.

“She’s a Minecraft player. There you go. So I can say, ‘Oh, hi. I play Minecraft too. What do you think about this?’

“And they can use their grooming methods in order to try and pull them in,” Waterstreet says. “And next thing you know, they’re joining a party, where it’s just them one-on-one. And you can send text messages. You can talk online.”

This is new territory, but Waterstreet says it’s starting to happen in Wisconsin.

“There’s xBox cyber tips that come through,” says Waterstreet. “In fact, yesterday we got an email of an investigator looking for PlayStation information, on how to contact PlayStation because of a tip.”

Waterstreet says many kids post video of themselves playing the games on YouTube or similar sites to get likes and followers.

This is all public. WBAY-TV found hundreds of them.

Waterstreet says these videos contain identifying information in the background that gives predators precious details about your child. This includes photos or conversations identifying family members’ names or locations.

“It’s wide open for predators to try to infiltrate,” Waterstreet says.

So what can a parent do?

“It’s all about being aware of the content and setting guidelines with your children, as far as you, your family, are comfortable with that child doing,” said Dana Miller, ICAC Program Manager.

You can set restrictions and control who your kids chat with under “privacy settings” on your gaming system.

Miller says it’s important not to use identifying information in your username.

“Have that conversation about choosing a safe one that doesn’t have your age, your year of birth, your school mascot,” Miller advises.

Investigators aren’t suggesting all games are dangerous or that children should avoid them. It’s all about knowing who they’re playing.

“Just try to be more aware of what your child is doing,” says Waterstreet. “Don’t take it away from them because they’re going to find the avenue to get to it.”

Parents should also look out for modified games called “mods.” Parts of these games can be altered.

Investigators say that’s place where child pornography has been traded in an underground way.