The following is a post from my friend Jennifer in Houston, TX, who has a first hand account of how a predator tracked down her son on Snapchat. She agreed to share this information because she wants parents to be aware of the dangers of Snapchat and how this app, like others that thrive on secrecy, can put kids in dangerous situations without them even realizing it. In addition to sharing information on social media and working with a local police officer on her case, she is now also giving Internet Safety presentations to various groups in and around Houston. If you think she’s alone, she’s not. Her Facebook page is filled with comments from people who have lived similar stories. She recommends knowing exactly which apps your child is using and the dangers that might come with each one – and she specifically recommends reviewing www.netsmartz.org and her Snapchat 101 document for more information.
The following is a recap from Jennifer about what happened:
I’m sharing what happened to my 14-year-old son only so other parents can be aware. He asked for Snapchat claiming that he was old enough, everyone has it, and he would only be friends with people he knew. I finally agreed and vowed to monitor him as best I could. I joined Snapchat and snapped with my college-age nieces and followed reputable snappers like JJ Watt and YoungLife so I could see how it worked.
I noticed that my son was chatting with friends I know. But one week I saw a name I didn’t recognize and asked him who it was. Their conversation started innocently enough with a “Hey” and “Hey” back. He was pretty sure that her name was Rebecca and that she rode the bus to school with him. I checked the conversation the next day and it looked like this:
“Can you snap a pic of yourself?”
I thought it was strange that she wanted a picture of him but then I also thought, like he did, that it must just be a teenage girl with a crush. I got busy and didn’t check back for about a week but when I did I found pages of chatting that let me know that this was not a teenage girl but a predator who was grooming him.
“We should talk more.”
My son didn’t answer.
“Hello. Answer Me Please. What school do you go to?”
“Woodlands Junior High. Don’t you go there? Aren’t you on my bus?
He was sent a still shot of a really pretty, sexy high school age girl. (It was not taken with the Snapchat app, which means it was saved on the conversation screen so I could see it.) “I go to Woodlands High School.” Do you think I’m pretty?”
“I’m saying yes!”
“Want to trade?”
My son didn’t answer.
“Do you know what that means?”
“We send pics. Are you in your room?”
“I’ll go first when you get to your room.”
My son was talking to what he thought was a beautiful, interested, high school girl. Before you judge, ask yourself what teenage boy wouldn’t be intrigued? He followed along with her requests to return the favor and sent similar pictures of himself and they had an ongoing “conversation” for over a week.
He was acting strange when he got home on Friday, April 30. Before bed he was putting his phone in our office where we require him to keep it overnight, but when I walked in he quickly closed it. I asked why he was so nervous and then asked for his phone. He said nothing was wrong and then refused to hand over his phone. Eventually I got it from him and went to Snapchat only to find this conversation which included photos not “snapped” by this person but taken with the actual phone camera. This person was not a high school girl but a predator wanting naked pictures of my son and most likely wanting to meet up with him to rape him, take him to sex trafficking (which is rampant in Houston), or perhaps just to kill him and leave him for dead.
I called 911 and eventually landed with the constables office where I filed a report. They kept my son’s phone so they could download data and try to find this child predator. This is an actual example of how a simple “hey” from a stranger on social media turned into asking to share pics which likely would have led to this person asking to meet up. I posted this on Facebook to expose these predators, how they work in social media, and how no one is off limits. I consider myself fairly social media savvy having run a business using this marketing platform but even so this happened on my watch, in my home.
A few parents who also thought they knew about Snapchat responded that this couldn’t have happened because Snapchat doesn’t allow conversations, just “snapping” of pictures and videos that disappear. So, I created a Snapchat 101 document with instructions on how to find conversations and more.
Here’s the reality: Social Media is here to stay. We can’t stop the train because it has already left the station. But we can be vigilant and have conversations before things like this happen. Show your kids this story so they know how a simple “hey” from a stranger can really be a test from a predator. Sexual predators know this age is vulnerable and they know they have a great platform for manipulation. We have learned from this. My younger sons are now extremely aware of what an internet predator looks like. I attended training at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and now speak on Internet Safety to organizations around Houston. There is something about hearing it from someone who experienced it first hand that rings a little louder than hearing from someone just speaking on the topic. My advise is to have your children read this blog so they can better understand how quickly a person posing as a friend can turn into an online relationship that is demanding, scary, and intoxicating. It happened to us. It can happen to anyone.