A New, Terrifying Kind of ID Theft – Pedophiles Assuming Kids’ Identities
It's so easy to do: You're on vacation, you snap a great picture of the kids, and you wish grandma could see all the fun. So with a single tap on your phone -- Snap! -- she can! On Facebook, or Instagram, or Flickr, or dozens of other places designed for sociability
It all seems so innocent, so easy. Harmless fun.
That's what Jeremy and Sara Thompson thought -- until a sheriff's officer showed up at their door and accused their 17-year-old son of sexually assaulting their 11-year-old son. It wasn't true: The teen was actually the victim of a new, perverse kind of identity theft that might be called "digital kidnapping." But the situation nearly tore the family apart. No parent should participate in social media without seriously considering what happened to the Thompsons.
Every day, parents upload millions of photos of their kids, spreading moments of joy around the world at light speed with extended family and friends. It's no small gesture. It's easy to imagine that some of this sharing is a lifeline to elder family members craving connection with the little ones.
The images also pile up rather quickly. The average parent will post about 1,000 photos of their child by the kid's 5th birthday, says a U.K. organization called Nominent. It counted 200 photos every year, or roughly one every other day. That sounds about right.
By the time a kid turns into a teen, an entire treasure trove of images have been released to the world which can be used to string together a narrative about the child. Parents doing this should wonder: Is it fair to do this to a kid without their informed consent? Plenty of teens, heading into the always-mortified part of their lives, demand their digital lives be scrubbed by parents. It's easy to think that's their right.
Embarrassment is the least-consequential impact of parental oversharing, however.
Jeremy and Sara, who live outside Seattle, were like many parents, filling a Flickr account with the usual fare: The kids on the beach, at Legoland, posing in the cockpit of an airplane.
Then the sheriff's department showed up with an officer from child protective services.
Local authorities had been contacted by the FBI, who'd arrested an alleged pedophile in California. While investigating that case, the FBI found disturbing chats, images and video allegedly involving their child. The oldest child had secretly filmed his younger brother masturbating in the bathroom and shared that online, the parents were told. Immediately, the family was put on an “in-home safety plan.” The kids were interviewed; their schools told about the investigation. The neighbors, their friends, all knew something was going on.
Jeremy, who works in IT, spent sleepless nights doing forensics on the kids' gadgets, looking for any evidence of wrongdoing. There was none.
A week later, the parents were finally told more details about the evidence in the case. The photos described were all harmless. But there was a Facebook page and a website devoted to the older child, who seemed to be exploring his sexuality. One page had 500 fans, mostly older men making crude comments about their son's photos. One middle-aged man posted a picture of himself next to the son’s picture as an answer to a Facebook quiz called “Who is your better half?” The images are surrounded by series of hearts.
That page pointed to a website with the same name. The name of the person who registered that domain rang a bell. Jeremy's son, years earlier, had been in a modeling contest for a major retail brand. At the time, a man sent a creepy note to the family saying he was rooting for the boy. The family blocked him and thought little of it. Then, seven years later, the sheriff’s department was at the door.
During those seven years, this man -- who we are not identifying at the family's request because of an ongoing investigation -- had created an artificial reality for the boy. The photos were stolen and intermingled with other, pornographic material. The masturbation video didn't involve either boy. Their teen-ager had a digital imposter. The boy was innocent; it was all a big, digital-age mistake. But it already had devastating consequences. The investigation was dropped, according to the local Snohomish County Sheriff's Department. But the healing has just begun.
"It was absolutely sickening and heartbreaking to discover this activity happening throughout the internet and even worse that they were looking at pictures of our children when doing it," Jeremy said. "By not locking down our social media accounts, we had let this monster into our world."
When we think of identity theft, we usually think of money, and credit reports, and credit monitoring. But our identities can be stolen or borrowed and used to commit crimes far worse than stealing money. Victims have been arrested when imposters falsified criminal records, for example. Patients get incorrect treatments because of medical ID theft.
This “new” form of ID theft might be the cruelest of all; its victims young and innocent, the behavior it enables perhaps the sickest imaginable. You might call it “digital kidnapping.” Three years ago, media outlets rushed to describe this creepy new phenomenon which involved adults stealing others’ baby pictures and posting them online as their own. The imposters then seemed to revel in all the oohing and aahhing that the images generated. While extremely weird, no one was quite sure what the crime was.
The Thompson family now knows. And they want other parents to know about the potential consequences of this kind of ID theft.
“It wasn’t our children. It was our fault,” said Sara. “We used to have a Flickr account that was public. We had YouTube videos under the same user name that were public. We thought it wasn’t a big deal. It allowed far way family to see our children. And anyway, who cares enough to see our family Christmas and vacations photos, right? Wrong. There are many people out there who care. Disgusting people who will stalk your children.”
It’s hardly practical telling parents they shouldn’t partake in social media sharing. That’s almost akin to rejecting modern life. It is prudent to be really judicious about photo sharing sites, and to use the highest level of privacy possible – to constantly screen friends, to distribute items and leave the smallest possible footprint. But it’s important to note this is very hard work – social sites often update settings, and they can be very confusing. They are built to encourage oversharing. Meanwhile, determined criminals can often find a way around these measures. The Thompson imposter created a fake Facebook profile claiming to be their son’s classmate, and managed to get dozens of friends to accept friend requests. He stockpiled many photos that way.
So the lesson here is clear, and critical: Do all you can to protect your children, but know that crimes like this can occur anyway. Parents should always have their ear to the ground, looking for signs of creepy stalkers. They need to talk with their kids, over and over, about the new apps and sites they use. Kids should be trained, again and again, about digital stranger danger. Most of all: Bad things can happen in any walk of life, real or virtual. When they do, stronger families with open communication lines have the best chance of surviving the ordeal.
So, talk. Early and often. Stay involved. Ask your kids how to use the apps they use. It’s not fair – keeping up is so hard when there’s so much else to do -- but that is the job of parents in the digital age.
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