Metro Detroit parents warned of teen online sextortion dangers

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Assistant United States Attorney Matthew Roth holds a talk on "Sexting and Human Trafficking" at the Huntington Woods Public Library in Huntington Woods, Michigan on December 13, 2018.

Huntington Woods — Law enforcement officials in Metro Detroit want parents to know that online predators posing as teenage boys are actively trolling social media to lure and manipulate teenagers to perform sex acts on camera.

And it's happening in their own communities, homes and their children's bedrooms.

One Metro Detroit mother said her daughter was 11 when she fell victim to child exploitation in 2014 when a man manipulated and threatened the girl through a school-issued computer used in their own home and at school.

"I had no clue on any of it," said the mother, whose name is not being published to protect the identity of her daughter. "I did not find out about everything until the FBI showed up at my house. She did not tell me."

Experts in prosecuting child exploitation and sextortion cases involving minors say online hunters are seeking girls who are playing games or searching for someone to talk to online. Victims as young as 8 are encountering grown men, posing as teenage boys, who over long periods of time groom and then blackmail victims to produce child pornography online.

Sexting — the exchange of sexually explicit images or videos electronically — is how some child exploitation cases begin, investigators said. Once a photo is online, it’s impossible to bring it back, and can lead to the abuse of the victim.

"Kids are getting in trouble because of the decisions they are making when they're online," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Roth said. “I tell kids everything changes when you take that picture and send that picture. Once the bad guy gets that, they use it to extort you and expose you."

In a series of meetings held in Oakland County earlier this year and this month, Roth and law enforcement officials met with parents to warn of this online nightmare, which played out in a federal courtroom in Detroit this month.

On Dec. 5, eight men were sentenced to federal prison after the FBI broke up an international child exploitation ring that had victims in Metro Detroit and across the country.

In the case, the men convinced more than 100 children to strip and perform sex acts on camera. Only some of the girls have been identified by the FBI despite a years-long investigation.

The case, prosecutors say, highlights the dangers of online activity and the impact of sexual exploitation on children who, in this case, have attempted suicide and engaged in self-harm, including one girl who cut her arm with a piece of glass. A 2016 FBI report concluded that sextortion is a major, if not underlying, factor for child victims committing suicide.

Police say predators groom teen girls by using emotional attachment and manipulation. Boys are often preyed upon through exploitation of their natural curiosity about sex.

“A lot of kids are going to websites and meeting strangers online," Huntington Woods detective Bill Cudney said. "This is not a 17-year-old boy. It’s a 43-year-old man. The danger is it could lead to them being abused by this person to the point they meet up."

Predators gradually lower the victim's inhibitions by introducing sexually explicit images and then child sex abuse images, asking the victims to "do what those kids are doing in the video."

Roth said several factors influence why children fall victim to online predators, including the fact that kids are inherently trusting. Some suffer from low self-esteem, others seek to defy their parents, and most are curious and believe in the beginning that no one is getting hurt.

'She tried to take her life'

The path to child exploitation for the mother of the Metro Detroit girl began with her school-issued Chromebook when she was 11.

Believing she was talking to and texting with a boy she met in an online game chatroom — often doing so in front of her mother — the girl moved the conversation to her school laptop, taking the device into her bedroom and bathroom. 

"It was her first time talking to a boy on the phone. She was in sixth grade. She was sweet, happy, a girly-girl," the mother said.

During seventh grade, the girl changed drastically: she wore all black, became extremely agitated and angry, and then began cutting herself, her mother said.

She was suspended from school twice, including once for adding to a story on Google docs that was of an inappropriate, dark sexual nature, her mother said.

"I couldn’t figure out why she was acting out and what was going on," she said.

Then, almost two years after the girl became a victim, the FBI appeared on her mother's doorstep in August 2016, just as the family was headed to the girl's freshman high school orientation, and delivered the news that changed the family's lives forever.

“I dropped to my knees," the mother said. "Everything makes sense now. Now you know your child is in so much pain and hurting and then you feel guilty because I had punished her for all of her behavior. She tried to take her life that day."

The girl would try to take her life three times before the man convicted of exploiting her was sentenced to 35 years in prison in Detroit in 2017.

Prosecutors said John Garrison took at least 252 child pornography images and child exploitative videos of the girl, who was among 22 victims nationwide found in the case that contained thousands of such images. He was part of a nationwide ring of individuals who worked together, using the internet, to entice females to produce child pornography via webcams.

The girl, who spoke at Garrison's 2017 sentencing, told the courtroom that Garrison had found her on Instagram and Facebook and threatened to kidnap or kill her if she did not continue making videos for him.

"I still fear there is someone out there watching me and shaming me for who I am,” the girl, then 14, said during her victim impact statement.

The mother said her daughter, who is now 15, is getting counseling and is back in school, never told her about the abuse. She refuses to sleep in her room and seeks comfort from her mother's bed or the couch.

Looking back, the mother recalls her daughter saying things like “you wouldn’t understand” and “you wouldn’t care anyway.”

“They feel like they are alone," the mother said. "They feel like they are fighting this battle all by themselves.”

The mother said parents worry too much about the outside world and protecting kids from danger there.

“The brutal truth is: it’s not what’s outside, it's what’s coming into your home. That is what is frightening me the most,” she said.

How to handle the phones

Teens have grown up with selfies and video recordings on their phones, and most of their entertainment revolves around watching videos on YouTube and other websites.

According to the Pew Research Center's study Teens, Social Media & Technology released in May, smartphone ownership is a pervasive reality in teen life: 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45 percent say they are online "almost constantly."

Another Pew poll found that girls are more likely than boys to report being the recipient of explicit images online they did not ask for, 29 percent versus 20 recent. And being the target of these types of messages online is an especially common experience for older girls: 35 percent of girls ages 15-17 say they have received unwanted explicit images.

About a dozen parents attended the "Sexting and Human Trafficking" seminar given by Roth and Cudney at the Huntington Woods library on Dec. 13.

Parent Scott Somers, who has four children, said he walked away with plans for where cellphones will be stored at home.

"I think it's incredibly powerful. It's all stuff I've heard little bits of, and when you put it all together, it's really quite shocking," Somers said of the presentation on sexting. 

Somers said when his 18- and 20-year-old children had cellphones years ago, he had no idea what they were doing on them.

"Now I have 8- and 10-year-olds who are coming up, and I am going to manage it differently," Somers said. "They shouldn't sleep with their phones. Our bedrooms will be the best place. The kitchen isn't even good enough."

Joyce Krom, a Huntington Woods parent, said the information provided at the meeting is what every parent should know, but it is also just the tip of the iceberg.

"You are not going to come to a presentation like this and get all the answers," Krom said. "What you are going to find out is that you need to be vigilant, you need to be the one do the research, looking through your kid's phone and Googling the apps."

Krom has 12- and 16-year-old children and said she spoke to them about the dangers of online predators when they got their smartphones.

"We went through their phone with them and said here are the apps and here is how you use them and know we will be looking at the apps. We are going to read your emails, read all your texts and look through at your pictures, and we are going to do it with you, and we are going to sit here and talk about the things we see," Krom said.

'You need to communicate'

Both Roth and Cudney said parents need to talk to their child about the dangers online and explain how a single photo or online conversation with a stranger can lead to sexual assault.

"We cannot unplug our kids. The internet is everywhere. You need to communicate with them and encourage them to talk to you," Roth said. "Be informed, know what social media sites your kids are on and have rules."

Cudney said parents need to ban cellphones in bedrooms and bathrooms, the two places where many children take nude photos of themselves.

"There isn't a failsafe way to make sure your kids never get involved this or exposed to this. The technology is changing so rapidly," Cudney said. "You have a right to go on your children's devices and check out what they are doing."

Parents should also be on the lookout for their children using these websites: Kik, Omeagle, Whisper, House Party, YouNow and others.

“I don’t think they can appreciate the fact we can save them and help them," Roth said. "They worry they will get in trouble. They don’t understand there are people who can help them."

"... Parents have to talk about this to their kids. Tell them, 'I won't take your online life away. I will make you safe.' "

Signsyour child may be at risk online

  • Your child spends large amounts of time online, especially at night.
  • You find pornography or other "banned" material on your child's computer.
  • Your child receives telephone calls from someone (particularly an adult) you don't know, or is making telephone calls, sometimes long distance, to telephone numbers you don't recognize.
  • Your child receives mail, gifts or packages from someone you don't know.
  • Your child turns the computer off or quickly changes the screen when you come into the room.
  • Your child is using an online account belonging to someone else.
  • Your child becomes withdrawn from the family.

Source: Michigan State Police.