It was just another day in Oceanside, California, back in 1989. I was walking by myself along the sidewalk around the school on my way to the bus stop. It was a public sidewalk adjacent to the street. All of a sudden, a man I’d never seen before slowed his car and made pace with my stride, trying to get me to stop.
He told me my mother asked him to pick me up from school. As soon as he mentioned my mother, I stopped and looked at him. I considered what he said. But the thing is, I knew all my mother’s friends, and I didn’t know him. Instead of engaging in conversation, I decided to run all the way to the bus stop so I could get away.
Obviously, this could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully it didn't.
This is it. We’ve reached a breaking point and a point of no return. As Child Sexual Abuse Material continues to increase with no hope of slowing down, the quest to fight the pedophilic enemy demands special tactics, which begin in the home.
While there are hordes of cyber vigilantes whose focus is to hunt down offensive accounts on social media and report them, escalating the worst cases to authorities and organizations that investigate CSAM, the prevention and education aspect is left to fend for itself.
Promoting prevention and education starts in the home and should be actively supported by school districts globally since the problem isn’t going away any time soon. Prevention plays a crucial role simply because it empowers parents and children to understand the challenges we are addressing and, more importantly, comprehend the implications involved.
Shielding a child from knowing and understanding the dangers they will face online and offline doesn’t protect them from it. It only causes them to become more vulnerable and ultimately defenseless if they encounter a child predator.
Understanding inappropriate behaviors
Children are vulnerable wherever they congregate online. Even media content specifically made for kids can seem innocuous on the outside but contain subtle undertones of grooming and other inappropriate behaviors.
Messaging, chat clients, and online games also provide avenues of contact, which, if unmonitored, can be used by predators to engage in inappropriate behaviors and, even worse, manipulate a child from the safety of their home to meet the offender. Recently, I worked on a case with the OpChildSafety group, W1nterSt0rm, where a young victim was lured from her home by a predator over Roblox and Discord.
Similarly, when W1nterSt0rm works online cases involving adult perpetrators who are looking for young victims, we’ve encountered several pedophiles who, in each instance, attempted to manipulate our decoy into meeting them locally.
Grooming always begins with establishing trust, oftentimes exclusive trust. However, the goal for parents is to prevent that stage from evolving in the first place simply by monitoring their child’s online interactions and teaching them that this is not okay and why.
In every instance in our investigations, if the conversation begins innocently, the predator will always sexualize the conversation and, by extension, the relationship. While we typically imagine pedophiles to be only males, females are also occasionally found guilty.
According to one report, an estimated 80-90% of offenders are male, while 10-20% of offenders are female, although the proportion of female offenders is subject to debate. In each of our investigations, the male-to-female ratio of predators that have engaged our decoy was primarily male. However, almost exclusively, the female predators we’ve encountered always take on a motherly nurturing role play that is anything but.
To drive my point home, I was once targeted by a female predator when I was 13 or 14 on IRC chats. Even then, I had no concept of what a pedophile was and had never heard that word before, least of all knew what it meant. We used to talk on the phone all the time, and I thought nothing of it because, at the time, I that she was cool, not understanding the criminal nature of what she was really doing.
The popular online game Roblox is also a prime example of where pedophiles hit. While parents can’t be everywhere at once, they can install access controls, time limits, and other monitoring utilities that give them access to their children’s devices.
While many parental control apps offer features such as GPS tracking, limiting access to certain apps, preventing WiFi access, monitoring web browsing, or blocking websites, it’s important to be mindful of “blind spots.” If you can’t read your child’s messages and see who they’re speaking to and what they’re discussing, you’re missing the big picture.
OPSEC for children
Prevention is more than just observing what they’re already doing. But also what they were doing before a parent decided to implement monitoring and safety methods. This will help create a roadmap for parents to get a full picture of what their child does, which apps they use, and who they know.
Predators look for specific clues in online games and chat rooms that give them ideas on who their next target will be. Oftentimes, this can be ascertained easily by the child’s screen name. Children must never indicate their name, age, gender, or location in their screen name. It should be noted that any countermeasures we implement, predators will devise their own methods to circumvent them.
Additionally, online accounts should never indicate any public-facing personal identifiers or identifying photos of the child. Moreover, educating children not to give out personal information, including phone numbers, is paramount because phone numbers can easily be reversed using online public records resources to uncover the subscriber’s physical address and other identifying information.
Reporting done right
Step 1. If you come across a website that contains CSAM, etc, you should know how to report it correctly. Pulling the Whois record for the website will direct you to the Domain Profile. Search for the Abuse Contact Email and send an email to that domain’s abuse. Remember, the domain name is the URL that directs web traffic to the host. Let’s also report abuse to the host provider.
You’ll be able to find that information in the Domain Profile. If the host that the domain redirects to is, say, Wix, GoDaddy, or any other hosting provider, you may need to google what the contact information is for their Abuse department. I use DomainTools to perform domain lookups. Your report to both the domain and the host should be as detailed as possible and include any supporting evidence.
Step 2. Next, make an official report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (NCMEC) using their CyberTipline, following the same example of detail above. What you do here matters. There are organizations especially dedicated to handling reports, escalating them to the proper authorities, etc.
Reporting social media profiles and accounts on messenger platforms is relatively easy with a few taps or mouse clicks. If the account is found in Terms of Service Violation (ToS), it will be removed.
Note to the online pedo hunters
There is nothing more damaging to an active investigation into exploited children than attacking a website being investigated for CSAM with a Denial of Service attack (DoS). In fact, this is positively the worst thing you can do and is just a universally stupid move. That is because the attack raises red flags among the owner(s) of the CSAM website by notifying them that you’re onto them. Their next move is to dissolve the site and move it to a different host under a new domain that we’re not aware of. This obstructs the investigation and does not result in rescuing the victim.
If your actions do not reflect rescuing the victim, you’re not fighting against the proliferation of CSAM. Additionally, mass-reporting accounts might make your numbers look impressive, but the reality is that by doing so, you have not identified the owers behind those accounts, reported them to the proper authorities, or taken actions that reflect saving the victim.
Rescuing the victim should be the only thing that matters, and subsequently having the authorities locate and arrest the predator.
With the culmination of all these tools, education promotes awareness, which in turn helps increase the scope of prevention and limits harmful access to our children. After putting these measures into practice, parents should reach out to their children’s schools and offer an outline that teachers can use to help educate children about these dangers and how to avoid them.
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