KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Trafficking children has now gone high-tech as predators look for victims online and on phones, where kids hang out. A FOX 4 investigation reveals that sex traffickers are using popular social media apps and gaming sites to target children.
FOX 4 found that tweens and teens in the community are far too willing to talk to anyone on social media, including strangers who could be predators, and that landed one Johnson County teen a heartbeat away from disaster.
“We had the invisible boogie man in our home for 10 months that I didn`t know about it,” the mom said.
Her guilt and worry was fueled by what nearly happened to her daughter when she was 15 years old, a Johnson County teenager who landed one bus stop away from being lured into sex trafficking.
“Everything was fine until my sophomore year,” the teen, whose identity FOX 4 is protecting, said.
She`s the victim in a pending sex trafficking case in Minnesota. How did this savvy teen with hyper-vigilant parents who checked their kids’ social media accounts daily end up in such danger? She says she felt alone and had few friends, then spent a summer in Texas at her grandma’s.
“I got online, I downloaded a random chatroom app,” she recalled.
She met someone on the app Kik, where a predator was posing as a confidant.
“He just told me all the things I wanted to hear. When I felt ugly or insecure about myself, he told me that I was beautiful and perfect and worthy,” she described.
The two spent hours from dusk until dawn secretly messaging or video chatting.
“I was pretty much alone and the only person I had talking to me 24/7 was on my phone,” she said.
By the time she turned 16, the man had convinced her to run away and start a new life together in Minnesota. By then, she knew her “boyfriend” was really a 32-year-old man.
“He told me it was okay and that it was normal and that it doesn`t matter, age doesn`t matter,” she said.
The man encouraged her to steal her older sister’s ID, even sending her blue contact lenses to fit the description. In April of 2015, she kissed her mom goodbye, and left for school. Instead, she boarded a train to Minneapolis.
“I just got a bad feeling in my stomach,” the girl’s mom said.
When the mom couldn’t reach her daughter during the day, she worried. Hours passed, and her dad eventually learned his teenage daughter never went to school.
“That’s when it really hit me that something was really, really wrong,” the mom said.
The family called police, and a friend revealed the teen’s secret plan to run off to Minnesota. Minneapolis police intercepted the teenager on the last leg, a bus bound for Duluth, before the worst could happen.
“It was the luckiest day of her life,” her mom said.
Police told the girl she was headed to the international waters of northern Minnesota, and could have easily been shipped overseas for sex trafficking.
“It’s big business,” Russ Tuttle said.
And it’s a dangerous business. Tuttle is with the Stop Trafficking Project and warns that children face exposure daily.
“The recruitment, the grooming process, the ongoing control, the actual sale, the monitoring is all happening though social media. Students, though social media, are tragically opening up themselves to be exploited because they are exposing their vulnerabilities online,” he explained.
On apps like Kik, Yik Yak, Musically, or Omegle, which even warns that predators use it. FOX 4 found a girl on “You Now” where predators troll and talk to kids every day.
“There’s a comment right there: ‘You got nice melon. Melon. Don’t hide your beauty,’ short for take the rest of your clothes off,” Tuttle said.
The app even makes your location public. Tuttle saw first-hand the dangers kids face online when he posed as a 12-year-old girl using only a Gmail account. It only took seven seconds before a man solicited him.
“Seventeen seconds later after I don’t respond, ‘I’m bored. Watcha doin?’ I don’t respond. Twenty-one seconds later, images that I did not click on because I wasn’t interested in seeing what was mostly likely there, along with three sentences of what this person would like to do to a 12-year-old girl sexually,” he said.
Two years later, the Johnson County teenager is still recovering.
“I was set up to succeed and I was taken advantage of,” she said.
She now sees red flags with her clandestine relationship. Her mom is also recovering from the guilt a mother feels when she can`t protect her child.
“I feel very much like I gave her over to them when I gave her those devices,” the mom said.
But that guilt fuels her determination to warn parents that predators can strike any family anywhere and anytime.
“My worst fear is that somebody would ever take my child. And somebody did it, right under my nose,” she said.
The man who lured the teenager online pleaded guilty to electronic solicitation of a child and is on probation.