What to Know
Investigators urge parents who catch people preying on their children online to go straight to law enforcement
They say when parents go first to the social media platform, the platform often just disables the bad actor's account, wiping out evidence
Authorities say it's a problem that platforms aren't required to report predators just because no pornographic images are produced
If you catch a predator coming for your child online, federal agents say instead of freaking out on the perv, take a deep breath and call law enforcement.
And, they add, don’t tell the social media platform, either.
"It’s human nature for parents to be protective and say, 'You’re a creep, don’t go near my child,'" said Ricky Patel, assistant special agent in charge of the Cyber Division of Homeland Security Investigations.
That is the first mistake parents make, understandably, according to Patel. But once they do, the predator has a chance to erase their tracks, making them harder to catch.
"In a perfect world, having a parent come to us immediately is the way we should be operating," said Patel.
There's a second misstep, according to Patel: "Unfortunately, a lot of parents [also] go to the platform."
Too often, social media platforms respond to child grooming attempts by simply disabling and deleting a bad actor’s account without notifying law enforcement, Patel said.
"It’s disturbing, right? Tomorrow they can just create a whole new handle," he said. "And now we have to start all over again and basically wait for them to creep on another child."
It’s exactly what happened to an Upper West Side girl named Ella. Last year, the I-Team reported that Ella was terrorized on Instagram by a predator posing as a girl her age who sent her a penis picture and tried to convince her she’d get in big trouble if she didn’t send him topless photos in return.
"They said you have this picture. To make it fair you need to send one back," Ella said. "They kept pressuring me. I thought they just wanted a picture of my face and they said no. One without a shirt. I was crying."
But Ella didn’t fall for it. She never sent any topless pictures. Instead, she blocked and reported the pedophile, who just recreated himself and came back to harass her using a different account. Ella’s story demonstrated the terrifying online child enticement that has been going unreported by platforms.
In response to the I-Team reporting last year, Instagram apologized to Ella and opened an internal investigation. Instagram admitted that despite repeated red flags from Ella’s mother, a former prosecutor, they had failed to report the stalker to law enforcement and had permanently deleted the predator’s information too quickly.
"It was really frustrating when we found out the account was deleted because we knew so much crucial evidence was wiped," said Andrew Shore, the NYPD Computer Crimes Detective who jumped onto Ella’s case after the I-Team brought it to their attention.
Shore said his squad traced the threatening texts from Ella’s account all the way to an IP address, but then hit a dead end.
"The moment a service provider like Instagram identifies that Ella is a child and that someone has now sent her a naked photo of their genitals, then yeah, that should be reported," Shore said.
Instagram said under federal law, Ella’s complaint that the user had sent her a penis picture should have been reported to investigators, but it wasn’t because it was filed in the wrong category. The platform said that the law does not require platforms to report cases like Ella’s where a child has not produced any pornographic images.
Investigators at Homeland Security and NYPD agree that’s a problem.
"Laws need to change," Patel said.
In fact, in late December, Congress passed the CyberTipline Modernization Act stating that platforms may report tips that could lead to future or imminent child exploitation. But it’s still not a requirement, according to the bill’s sponsors and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Congressional sources who helped negotiate the Modernization Act said it remains to be seen how various internet companies will interpret the change and whether it will result in a surge in attempted child grooming tips. Civil liberties groups urged lawmakers to consider the privacy of users, and the risk of overreporting to law enforcement, they added.
After seeing the I-Team report about Ella last year, Rep. Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) wrote to the Justice Department asking for clarification.
DOJ responded in April that under the law, attempts to criminally exploit children online should be reported. But parents may be surprised to know that a DOJ spokeswoman confirmed that the harassment of Ella for topless photos does not rise to the level of required reporting because "topless photos is not a violation of federal law."
The investigators interviewed by the I-Team agreed that social media platforms do a good job reporting explicit material online once it has been exchanged.
Instagram told the I-Team it does not allow content or behavior that puts the privacy and safety of children at risk. A spokeswoman for the platform said she disagrees that parents should bypass the social media outlets and go straight to law enforcement when confronted by a predator.
Patel praised Ella for her handling of a scary situation.
"It’s great that she's intelligent enough to realize that 'I am not going to do this,'" he said. "It’s great that she had the tenacity not to actually send him a picture. Not to go forward with it."
As far as investigators know, Ella’s predator was never nabbed.
"I’m sure he is still out there," she said.
There are three different ways for parents to contact law enforcement when they observe their children being targeted by predators online:
- To reach Homeland Security Investigations, call the HSI Tipline 1-866-DHS-2423
- To reach the NYPD, email NYC Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force at NYCICAC@NYPD.org or call 646-610-5397
- To reach the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which acts as a clearinghouse for child exploitation and can take tips from anyplace in the U.S., call the 24-hour hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) or visit cybertipline.org. NCMEC attempts to locate predators wherever they are and refer tips to law enforcement in the appropriate jurisdiction.