5 Slimy Tricks Cyber Predators Use to Lure Kids
Online predators are stalking kids in record numbers. Protect your family by learning their playbook.
It took TikTok influencer Coby Persin just three days to lure 12-year-old Julianna from Facebook Messenger into a nighttime encounter on her front porch. Fortunately, this was only a public awareness stunt. 28-year-old Coby was posing as the lonely new kid in town. Julianna’s parents were in on it. He tried the same thing with two other teens, with the same results.1
As far back as 2007, the FBI was warning us that there were over 500,000 actual predators operating online every day, striking up “friendships” with our kids.2 These days that number is likely to be much higher with cyber stalkers lurking on online gaming platforms, apps, and social media sites like TikTok, Snapchat, and Whisper.
Scary, I know.
Shielding our kids from every online threat that comes their way is impossible, but sleazeballs do have playbooks. Catch on to their ploys and you can stay one step ahead of them. Here are five of their favorite tricks for snaring and grooming their next victim.
Did You Know: Early into the pandemic, cyber stalkers published a dark web “predator’s manual.” In its pages, would-be sex criminals could find tips for taking advantage of COVID-19 restrictions to groom and exploit vulnerable children online.3
1. Gaming buddies
Ever played Among Us? It’s a multiplayer game where you wander around a spaceship trying to solve a murder. Kids love it. So do pedophiles. That’s because Among Us has an online chat feature, where middle-aged lowlifes can strike up conversations with juvenile players, most of whom can’t tell a psychopath from a potential playmate.
These cybercriminals have a predictable M.O. A lot of compliments (“love bombing” in the lingo), usually followed by a request to move to a cosier platform to talk. Some predators will fish for identifying information to set up real-life “dates.” Others will strong-arm kids into sending sex pics, which they’ll use as blackmail, a.k.a., “sextortion.”
The same thing can happen on any gaming platform that has live chat. Roblox, Minecraft, Call of Duty, and Discord are all popular lairs for sicko cyber predators.
Your best defense: If your kids are too young to recognize a sociopath (say 13 and under), disable open online play. Instead, set up a closed network of friends and relatives. Kids will still get the social interaction they enjoy and need, but without the risk of running into jailable creeps.
FYI: A team of linguists at Swansea University in Wales discovered that a skillful online predator could groom a child in as few as 20 minutes.4
North of the border, in Canada, authorities began noticing an alarming trend in 2020. Reports of child abuse on their national hotline, Cybertip, had shot up by 81 percent.
One of the most common crimes being reported was a phenomenon called “capping,” where online stalkers coerced boys and girls into posing explicitly while livestreaming on chat apps and gaming platforms. The predators would then secretly record or grab shots of the content and threaten to publish it unless their victims gave them more of the same. (Garden variety grifters would also ask for money and gifts.)
Capping isn’t only happening in Canada. Sex camming was on the rise in the U.S. as far aback as 2015.5 The hotspots for cappers today are Snapchat, Omegle, Chatroulette, and even Skype.
Your best defense: We parents can’t patrol every camera in the house, but we can keep tabs on where our kids are hanging out online. (Parental control software can be a gamechanger here.) We also recommend you have the “scams and predators talk” early and try to make your kids feel comfortable talking to you when something isn’t right.
Child Online Safety Tip: If you use free parental control software like Google Family Link, you can set up camera blocks on specific apps. (Monitoring options are also available with some top-rated identity theft protection services.) Additionally, we recommend limiting use of freestanding webcams to “public” areas of the house like the kitchen and living room.
In 2007, 24-year-old NYC-based photographer Nev Schulman fell in love with a beautiful young dancer living in Michigan. The romance happened exclusively online and culminated with an IRL meeting, where Schulman discovered (spoiler alert) that his beautiful young girlfriend was a frumpy, middle-aged serial liar. He told his story in a documentary called Catfish.6
Fifteen years later, the online catfish community is thriving. Some of them get off on posing as tweens and teens. As over-the-top as it sounds, the odds are stacked in the catfish’s favor. Young kids are desperate for social validation. They want to feel special and loved, and they are totally used to online relationships. This vulnerability is a predator’s bullseye.
Cyber predators study their victims’ social media profiles, create personas in that age range with similar likes and interests, and then make contact. They start out friendly, but gradually build up intimacy. As soon as they get a taste of what they want — a compromising pic usually — they morph into threatening bullies.
Your best defense: For social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, parents should have younger users switch their posts and stories to “friends only.” That means lurkers can’t see what kids are posting. You can also set your child’s location to “private,” which isn’t a bad idea until they’re out of high school.
Did You Know: Recent studies suggest that as many as 40 percent of our flesh-and-blood romantic relationships start online.7
4. The Modeling Agent
A talent scout from one of the “big” modeling agencies reaches out to your 14-year-old in a private chat. They’ve seen some photos on Instagram, they say, and believe young Lucy (or Luke) has the potential to become a superstar.
And why not? After all, kids are really good at publishing flattering selfies. TikTok stars make it big all the time — ordinary tweens and teens who happen to be seen at the right time doing the right thing.
The only hitch? The agent needs photos that are a little sexier. You know, like in the magazines. Actually, he says, something naked would be ideal.
You see where this is going. It’s straight out of the cyber predator’s handbook. Except, instead of giving our children a private boost of self-esteem, the “modeling agent” is promising them the world.
Your best defense: Set your child’s social messaging options to “friends only.” (In fact, you might consider the same for yourself.) That will keep these creepy career advisors out of their private chats.
FYI: “Sextortionists” use compromising pictures of our kids as blackmail. Most of the time, children are conned into taking the pics willingly. But sometimes sexual predators will claim to have hacked a child’s computer (giving a password to one of their accounts they bought on the dark web as proof) and demand more footage. Here’s how you can sidestep those attacks by child-proofing your kids’ laptops.
5. The IRL Predator
Many predators won’t pretend to be someone else or materialize online out of the blue.8 They’re people our kids already know off screen. These “acquaintance predators” don’t use outright deception, which can make them more difficult to root out.
Instead of elaborate lies, they bombard our children with online attention, flattery, and sympathy, gradually chipping away at their other relationships. (“Your dad doesn’t let you stay up past 10? You should come to my house. You can stay up as late as you want here. LOL.”)
Grooming always starts by establishing an emotional connection. (“I get you. We’ve got so much in common.”) Sexualized communication is the next step. (“You look pretty today. Where did you get that sizzlin’ blouse?”) Over time, predators confuse kids into thinking that sharing intimacies like this with an adult is normal. If children play along, the relationship can quickly turn sexual.
Your best defense: Plenty of parents aren’t comfortable monitoring their kids’ online chats. But if you have no problem with this, you’ve got your solution right there. If that’s too Big Brother for you, talk to your kids early (kindergarten age is good) about predators, and be on the lookout for red flags. Secret screentime is one of the biggest red flags.
Child Online Safety Tip: In 93 percent of cases of juvenile sexual abuse, victims know the perpetrator.9 So if your child is spending an abnormal amount of time chatting with Todd, their favorite counselor from summer camp, keep an eye out.
There are few things as revolting as an adult who preys on kids sexually, online or anywhere else. But they’re out there. In droves.
Cyber sleazeballs use very simple but effective techniques to pull the wool over our eyes. Their goal is almost always the same: to humiliate and psychologically torture innocent children. To get there, they count on the ubiquity of the web, an explosion in screen time,10 and our inability to monitor our kids 24/7 — a tremendous home court advantage for predators.
But the game isn’t fixed, not by a longshot — as long as we study the predator’s playbook, share it with our kids, and watch out for red flags. Do that and we parents can shift the odds back into our favor and give these sickos the only pics they deserve: mugshots in the National Sex Offender Registry.
- Coby Persin (YouTube). (2015). The Dangers Of Social Media (Child Predator Experiment).
- U.S. Government Printing Office. (2007). SEX CRIMES AND THE INTERNET.
- The Guardian. (2020). Child abuse predator ‘handbook’ lists ways to target children during coronavirus lockdown.
- BBC News. (2017). Swansea University anti-grooming project to stop paedophiles.
- WSB-TV 2 Atlanta. (2015). Feds seeing increase in live web cams exploiting children.
- ABC News. (2010). Inside ‘Catfish’: A Tale of Twisted Cyber-Romance.
- Psychology Today. (2021). How Common Is Catfishing?
- National Library of Medicine. (2020). Youth Internet Safety Education: Aligning Programs With the Evidence Base.
- Registered Offenders List. (2022). National Registered Sex Offender Laws.
- The New York Times. (2021). How Worried Should We Be About Screen Time During the Pandemic?