SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — Sexual predators are on a new playground, targeting kids by chatting with them while they play popular video games. Where children are spending their time online, criminals are lurking.
“The predators are master manipulators,” said Sgt. Garrick Nugent a San Diego Police Department Detective. He is the Task Force Commander with Internet Crimes Against Children, a group of detectives who investigate offenders who use the Internet and other online communication systems to sexually exploit children.
He started to notice a trend in most child exploitation cases that involve games like Minecraft and Roblox.
“They have a chat component to the game. The adults that are pretending to be children will go on and play the games, friend these children in those games, and develop a relationship with the kids,” said Nugent.
During the grooming process, predators will ask kids to move to other chatting applications like Discord. Detective Nugent says this app can be accessed on any device and is even used inside some San Diego classrooms to conduct online learning. Perpetrators prey on naivety and innocence, while kids think it is a trusted platform.
“They begin talking in a sexually suggestive manner. Typically, as soon as they get the child to send at least one image that may be illicit, they got their hooks in,” said Nugent. The adult pressures the minor to send photos often in exchange for video game credits. According to Sgt. Nugent, in San Diego County, there has been a 300% increase in child exploitation cases since 2019.
"We have seen a huge increase and it’s happening all the time,” said Nugent.
“After COVID hit, we just started getting hit left and right,” said Detective Tami Mason.
She works undercover, posing as a child online to catch predators. She says most relationships go beyond casual chatting as people are getting more creative with ways to victimize kids.
“If they know that they are going to have trouble communicating with that kid they'll send them a phone with fully paid plans. They will say hide it from your parents,” said Mason.
“A lot of kids, epically those part of the LGBTQ community are embarrassed or ashamed for what they have done or what’s happened to them,” said Nugent. He says parents must create an open and safe dialogue around the dangers online.
Detective Mason suggests parents set rules like no phones in the bedroom or bathroom but the living room instead. Disable chat functions whenever possible on video games and apps. Enact parental controls and turn off internet capabilities at night.
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