If you have time to read only one Digital Wish, please make it this one! Thank you Heather for taking the time to share your invaluable experience as an investigator of child exploitation, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, narcotics, espionage, homicide and more.
Who are cyber predators looking for?
I’ve been asked this question a lot. For 14 years I was a Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS…yes, like the tv show). I lived and worked all over the world chasing bad guys. In those 14 years I watched as the criminal landscape changed. It was as if the doors to homes were slowly opening to the cyber predators.
So…who are the cyber bad guys looking for? The kid in another town, the kid on the news, the kid in another state, the kid in another country, surely someone you don’t know or care about. Nope. He’s looking for your kid.
Are there really that many cyber predators out there?
There are more cyber predators out there than you could ever imagine. Law enforcement has
developed tools that will allow them to see geographic areas where child pornography is being downloaded. The first time I saw the tool I found myself just staring at the screen. I wanted to go find every single one of those bad guys and personally throw them in jail. But of course I’m only one person. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough good guys to catch all of the bad guys. It’s not like tv. It’s literally like searching for a needle in a haystack.
Fortunately there are local, state, and federal law enforcement teams who work every single day to catch these guys. As they develop new ways to exploit our kids, law enforcement tries to keep up. Our good guys devote their careers to helping kids and holding the bad guys accountable. The toll it takes on the good guys is generally over looked. Amongst that community it is often said…”we hunt the evil you pretend doesn’t exist.” But what if you could help?
I’m not a cop, how could I possibly help?
You’ve already taken the first step by reading this article. If you weren’t concerned about online safety you wouldn’t be here right now. You wouldn’t be interested in CyberWise. But here you are. YOU can make a difference.
While I was a Special Agent with NCIS I was always saddened when I talked to families after their child was victimized and the parents had absolutely no idea of the dangers online or what their child was doing on the Internet. It reminded me of when our ancestors came to America. In families of immigrants the parents didn’t speak the language, so the kids had to translate. We need to learn to speak the kids new online “language”.
It really does happen to families just like yours…
Of all the investigations there are a few that still bother me. I sat in the room with a beautiful fifteen year-old girl (we’ll call her Jane) and her mom. Both of them crying. The girl out of shame and embarrassment. Her mom out of guilt and heartache. Several months before Jane started talking to someone online who she thought was a young Marine (we’ll call him Joe). She told me about how they developed a “friendship” online. He even sent her a picture of himself (or so she thought).
Eventually Joe told Jane he was going to deploy and needed naked pictures of her to get him through his time overseas. She complied and sent Joe numerous pictures. Jane told me at school she had been told for years not to do it, but they were “friends” and she wanted to support him while he was deployed. After sending an untold number of nude pictures, Joe wanted to meet in person. Again, Jane had been told many times not to meet anyone she met online. But…they were “friends.”
When the car pulled up at their agreed upon meeting place Jane knew something was wrong. This old guy didn’t look like Joe. Every instinct in her body told her to turn around and run home. But, she didn’t want to be rude. She got in the car.
Before anyone noticed she was gone, Jane was raped by “Joe”, who wasn’t a handsome young Marine, but rather an old guy who lived in his mother’s basement. Fortunately she was dropped off and came back to her family. We later learned Joe had also passed her pictures around to numerous other pedophiles.
You may have heard similar stories. You may have thought that’s some other kid, some other family. What I want you to know is that family was just as “normal” as any of us. Jane had been taught in school not to talk to people she didn’t physically know and to never agree to meet with anyone she met online. BUT her parents didn’t reinforce that lesson at home. In fact, her parents had no idea what social media Jane was using. It was all foreign to them. They saw her on her phone all the time and knew she was on her computer in her bedroom but never asked. I’ll never forget when Jane’s mom begged me to take all of the naked pictures off of the internet. I explained that I couldn’t. The pictures weren’t confined to one website. They were everywhere.
Ok, but I can’t be with my kids ALL the time.
No, you can’t. But you can get familiar with the world they’re living in. We’re the first generation of parents who can’t look to their parents for parenting advice. My mom has no idea how to use Twitter or Snapchat. She certainly wouldn’t have any words of wisdom for when my kids post something inappropriate on social media.
My suggestion is easy. Get to know your kids online presence. What kind of social media
are they using? Not familiar with the app or social media platform, do some research. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. There’s no excuse for being uneducated. Everything you need to know is at your fingertips. Continue to read CyberWise and check out my upcoming parenting video series "Get Safe Academy" with Frienedy.
Maybe the most important tip…talk to your kids. Talk to them about the very real dangers online. Reinforce what they’re learning in school. The power is really in our hands. If we can educate our kids about the scary stuff in the online world the predators will have fewer kids to prey upon. Fewer kids becoming victims = less time law enforcement has to spend focusing on those kids. See how it’s a circle? You absolutely can make a difference. It starts at home. Just like most things right?
Heather Ryan was a Special Agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS...yes, like the tv show) for
14 years. During that time she investigated child exploitation, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, narcotics, espionage and homicide. After years of reacting to crime and interrogating the bad guys she decided to focus on prevention. So, Special Agent Heather founded Safe in the City. At Safe in the City the team empowers people to become their own best defense. For years the bad guys told Special Agent Heather how they chose their victims, now she shares that information with her students through her blog; workshops; speaking engagements; an upcoming video series Get Safe Academy (a partnership with Frienedy); and soon a much anticipated book full stories detailing how she juggled her adventurous life being an NCIS Special Agent and being a mom to two energetic kiddos. If you have any questions or safety topics you would like to learn more about she would love to start the conversation!
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