Detective Sgt. Thomas Grella of the Portsmouth Police Department, the N.H. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force commander, discusses the dangers children face on social networking applications and how predators can exploit technology during an internet safety presentation at Cooperative Middle School in Stratham Thursday. [Ioanna Raptis/Seacoastonline]
STRATHAM — Children in New Hampshire are being lured, groomed and taken advantage of by online predators, and the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force wants parents to face the reality.
Pedophiliac strangers are entering homes around the state through thousands of mobile apps and websites — platforms many children have access to 24/7. And for many parents unfamiliar with the digital sphere, education and awareness is crucial in protecting their children.
“It’s about communication, it’s about knowing what’s out there, and it’s about knowing it happens here,” said Tom Grella, commander of New Hampshire ICAC. “I don’t mean to scare you, I just want you to be prepared.”
Grella and task force member Matt Fleming, a Bedford police detective, gave a presentation “Social Media: A Predator’s Playground” to parents at the Cooperative Middle School in Stratham Thursday night. Grella told parents the presentation “might really shock your conscience.”
Grella and Fleming explained the landscape of social media today, what parents should be aware of and what they should look for in their children.
While Facebook was once the pillar of social media, it isn’t any longer, Fleming said. Students are now using Instagram and Snapchat as more regular modes of communication. He mentioned sites such as Tumblr and Omegle as having highly-explicit content, and where many predators lie.
Risk factors of such websites, Grella said, are distribution and trading of sexual images, sextortion and cyberbullying, solicitation or child sex trafficking, and sexual assault and abduction.
Online predators, many posing as young children, act as the greatest threat of danger. But students can get caught in bad situations with each other. Grella discussed “sexting,” where provocative or naked photos are exchanged. These photos can be passed around, posted on social media, and possibly remain on the internet forever.
In 2015, a 15-year-old male Exeter High School student was arrested on a felony charge alleging he sold explicit photos of underage female students.
Grella and Fleming told parents of very real cases investigated by ICAC in New Hampshire regarding adult predators. In one case involving a local girl, detectives traced the suspect all the way to Pakistan. But most of the time, it’s someone not so conspicuous.
“Our suspects aren’t who you think they are,” said Fleming. “Our suspects are moms and dads. Our suspects are teachers and doctors and cops and firefighters and military people, lawyers, two pizza guys a couple years ago in Goffstown. We grab people who you live next door to. We grab people who live in your house you didn’t even know were doing it in your house. These are people who hide in plain sight and they make victims in plain sight.”
In 2017, a youth sports coach in Goffstown pleaded guilty to producing child pornography. Matthew Riehl, 25, posed as a teenage girl on social media, persuading his victims to take photographs of themselves and send them to him. A search warrant executed at Riehl’s residence uncovered approximately 500 photographs of minor boys in various states of dress, including child pornography.
This month, a Greenland man, Jason Stone, 39, pleaded guilty in federal court to possessing child pornography. A review of various electronic devices found in Stones residence showed they contained more than 100 images and videos of child pornography.
Sometimes there are warning signs when a child is dealing with conflict online, they said. Red flags may include a child stopping use of their cellphone, acting nervous when receiving a text or email, seeming uneasy about school or being withdrawn from friends and family.
One in five minors are sexually approached online with unwanted solicitations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Adult offenders may groom children by exploiting their natural curiosity, gradually introducing explicit images and offering gifts.
“If you don’t believe in these scenarios, then you are waiting to be a victim,” Fleming said. “Because we have met those people.”
Grella and Fleming urged parents to accept the reality and be open with their children. If your child tells you about something happening online, don’t freak out.
“The minute your kid tells you they did something wrong, we go nuclear, we can’t help it,” Flemming said. “We can’t help but get pissed. We don’t handle it well.”
Fleming said having conversations about online dangers with children might prompt them to disclose something happening to them, or if they know a friend in a bad situation.
“What we are talking about here is not a situation that is exclusive to the rich or the poor,” he said. “It is exclusive to kids and parents and our failure to monitor, our failure to understand.”
New Hampshire ICAC receives approximately 60 tips per month and executes an average of one search warrant per week.
So how do you protect your children? Be aware of what information you and your children are sharing online, do your homework about various social media platforms and how kids are using them, and communicate with your family.