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Online Predators concept

Local detectives who investigate internet crimes involving kids wants parents to be wary of seemingly innocuous apps, games and websites.

Technology has become a bigger part of our lives, but parents haven’t kept up with the risks, said Detective Joe Perry of the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. The internet is appealing to some predators because they have more anonymity and can meet kids from around the world without going out into the community.

Perry declined to cite specific online mediums where adults target kids, but said social media websites are of concern. The New Jersey Attorney General announced in September that games such as Fortnite and Minecraft, and popular apps including KiK and Musical.ly have become mediums for predators to chat with and target kids, NJ.com reported.

There are lots of ways people can contact kids online, but video game contact tends to occur over first-person shooter games, such as Call of Duty, Destiny or Fortnite, said Detective Dustin Dodd of the Napa Police Department, who works on similar cases in the city of Napa. These kinds of games are designed for teamwork and coordination, and members of a team can communicate via a headset or private message.

A lot of parents don’t realize video games or consoles, such as Xbox or PlayStation, allow people to communicate via message, Dodd said.

Other areas may have a more serious problem with internet crimes involving children, but even in Napa, where crime is low, these things can happen, Perry said. He noted that many area parents commute to work and leave their kids unsupervised often.

“The internet doesn’t really have any boundaries,” he said.

Perry said such crimes are underreported. The Napa County Sheriff’s Office, including the American Canyon Police Department, handled nine cases last year involving explicit images of minors contacted by people online, most of which are still active.

Most of the cases Perry works with involve children 12 years old or younger, he said.

Dodd estimated that he is directed to investigate leads from 10 to 24 times per year. He’s seen victims as young as 10 or 12, and into their later teens. Older teenagers are less likely to fall victim, and younger victims tend to know the person who is contacting them, Dodd said.

There is no safe chatroom, game or social media site, Perry said. People assume games marketed to kids are only played by kids, but some predators use those platforms to target minors in a certain age range.

“The suspect will basically just stay persistent until he finds a child that’s willing to do that,” he said.

Kids may receive a friend request from someone with a familiar name and think it’s someone they know.

A predator may ask for a child’s name, address, contact information and pictures, he said. Adults may spend some time trying to groom the child, even asking them to rate the attractiveness of someone in a photo, Perry said.

Kids who do send pictures may be rewarded with money or gift cards, Perry said. Adults seeking to groom kids may not ask for explicit pictures upfront, but may try doing so after they’ve built up a rapport with the child. Others may connect with a child online and ask them to video chat, then perform a sex act or ask the child to perform a sex act on camera, he said.

“They’re a lot more successful than you would think that they would be,” he said.

Perry said training on the subject has taught him that kids can receive thousands of dollars by doing this, and they can receive a bonus by recruiting peers who do the same — much like a pyramid scheme.

Some predators don’t believe what they’re doing is wrong because they aren’t physically harming the child, he said.

Kids don’t always understand the consequences of their actions. By the time kids realize they may have made a mistake, they may be afraid to tell their parents about what’s going on. Other times, a victim may tell the predator that they want to stop communicating with them and the person threatens to hurt them or their family, or send photos to social media friends or phone contacts.

If law enforcement is notified, detectives then have the task of working backwards to find a suspected predator’s real name from their screen name. Some people use their real names in their screen name because they don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong, he said.

Perry warns that parents should supervise their kids while they’re on the internet, and suggests parents invest in technologies such as WiFi routers with parental controls that allow parents to block certain keywords, set time limits and look at their kids’ internet history. He also suggests that parents be aware of what apps their kids are downloading — some apps can access the device’s contact list and pictures, if the user gives permission.

Parents should also educate their kids about the internet, and instruct them that they shouldn’t be friends with everyone online or share pictures — especially intimate ones — or personal information, he said.

Dodd suggested that parents learn what social media channels or apps their kids are using, and focus on those mediums. Popular games and sites change all the time, he said.

Parents should have their kids set up an account for them and show them how to use the service, he said. Dodd also recommended that parents set up video game consoles and digital devices in an open, common room. Kids are curious and they’re less likely to do things they shouldn’t if adults are in the room, he said.

Kids should know that if something doesn’t feel right or makes them uncomfortable, it’s probably not OK, Dodd said. At that point, kids should tell a parent or teacher.

Parents might be hesitant to get involved out of respect for their child’s privacy, Dodd said, but there’s more at stake.

“Your kid’s safety is more important than their perceived privacy,” he said.

Most child sex abuse cases that the Napa County District Attorney’s Office prosecutes involve predators who are related to the child victim, wrote attorney Agnes Dziadur in an email.

An exception would be a recent case against Aaron William Aranda, 23, of American Canyon. Aranda plead no contest to a felony charge of oral copulation on a minor after California Highway Patrol officers discovered his relationship with a 15-year-old teenage girl during a traffic stop, court records show. Their relationship began on Instagram, Dziadur wrote.

Aranda was sentenced in March, and must serve 180 days in jail and will have to register as a sex offender, court records show.

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Public Safety Reporter

Courtney Teague is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She can be reached at 707-256-2221. You can follow her reporting on Twitter and Facebook, or send her anonymous tip at: tinyurl.com/anonymous-tipbox-courtney.