Video Games and Online Chats Are ‘Hunting Grounds’ for Sexual Predators - The New York Times
Six years ago, a little over 50 reports of the crimes, commonly known as “sextortion,” were referred to the federally designated clearinghouse in suburban Washington that tracks online child sexual abuse. Last year, the center received over 1,500. And the authorities believe that the vast majority of sextortion cases are never reported.
There has been some success in catching perpetrators. In May, a California man was sentenced to 14 years in prison for coercing an 11-year-old girl “into producing child pornography” after meeting her through the online game Clash of Clans. A man in suburban Seattle got a 15-year sentence in 2015 for soliciting explicit imagery from three boys after posing as a teenager while playing Minecraft and League of Legends. An Illinois man received a 15-year sentence in 2017 after threatening to rape two boys in Massachusetts — adding that he would kill one of them — whom he had met over Xbox Live.
“The first threat is, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m going to post on social media, and by the way, I’ve got a list of your family members and I’m going to send it all to them,’” said Matt Wright, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security. “If they don’t send another picture, they’ll say: ‘Here’s your address — I know where you live. I’m going to come kill your family.’”
The trauma can be overwhelming for the young victims. An F.B.I. study reviewing a sample of sextortion cases found that more than a quarter of them led to suicide or attempted suicide. In 2016, a Justice Department report identified sextortion as “by far the most significantly growing threat to children.”
It makes sense the gaming world is where many predators would go: It’s where the children are. Almost every single teenage boy in America — 97 percent — plays video games, while about 83 percent of girls do, according to the Pew Research Center.
One platform frequently used by predators is the video chat site Omegle — users need look no further than the site’s home page to find that out. “Predators have been known to use Omegle, so please be careful,” the site advises under a banner that exclaims, “Talk to strangers!” Omegle did not respond to requests for comment.
This fall, the F.B.I. rolled out an awareness campaign in middle and high schools to encourage children to seek help when caught in an exploitive sexual situation. “Even if you accepted money or a game credit or something else, you are not the one who is in trouble,” material from the campaign explains.
The authorities did it again, this time in Bergen County, a suburb close to New York City. They made 17 arrests. And they did it once more, in Somerset County, toward the center of the state, arresting 19. One defendant was sentenced to prison, while the other cases are still being prosecuted.
After the sting, the officials hoped to uncover a pattern that could help in future investigations. But they found none — those arrested came from all walks of life. Among them were a police officer, a teacher, a minister, a nurse, a bank manager, a mechanic, a waiter, a dental hygienist, a college student and a deliveryman.
“It cuts across all social and racial lines, across class lines — it cuts across every line,” Ms. Hoffman said. “There is no profile.”
When announcing the arrests, the authorities highlighted Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox as platforms where suspects began conversations before moving to chat apps. Nearly all those arrested had made arrangements to meet in person.
In a separate case in Ohio, the digital abuse of a young boy led to his physical abuse. The offender, Jason Gmoser, would encourage boys to show their genitals while on PlayStation, according to court records. Mr. Gmoser, who was found with over 500 videos recorded while gaming with boys, often offered gift cards that could be used on the network.
He told detectives in 2014 that he spent years interacting with an 8-year-old who had appeared in several of the videos, including one in which the boy exposed himself and said he would “do anything” for a $20 gift card.
There are a few seemingly simple protections against online predators, but logistics, gaming culture and financial concerns present obstacles.
Companies could require identification and parental approvals to ensure games are played by people of the same age. But even as some platforms have experimented with programs like Real ID, a verification effort, gamers have resisted giving up anonymity.
“There’s been community-layer rejection of those systems because people like to be able to be anybody,” said Todd Harris, who co-founded Hi-Rez, a game development studio based in Atlanta.
While Facebook has algorithms that can detect some text-based grooming, many gamers use audio and video chat. And eliminating audio and video interactions would be a death sentence for a gaming company fighting for customers. “You can’t seriously compete without talking,” Mr. Harris said. “The team with the best communication will win.”
Instagram, owned by Facebook, does not have the same restrictions. Until this past week, it had allowed users to send private messages to anyone, and a Times reporter was able to contact and video-chat with a 13-year-old girl who had a private account (the girl and her parents gave permission to conduct the test). After The Times asked about the policy, Instagram announced new features on Wednesday that allow users to block messages from people they do not follow. The company said it would also require users to enter their age when signing up.