Warning: Protect your kids from predators when they play online games

PITTSBURGH — We’ve got a warning for you if your child loves to play online video games. Predators are targeting kids who play on these platforms. The FBI says it’s not a question of if but when your child will encounter a predator — if you haven’t set parental controls. Find out how to protect your kids. 11 Investigates Angie Moreschi has a story all parents need to know.

It’s not IF but WHEN

Online predators know kids are on these games often unsupervised. They lurk behind fake profiles looking for opportunities to lure them into compromising situations.

From Roblox to Fortnite, kids like 5-year-old Shayna Gerson and her 7-year-old brother Michael can’t get enough of these online games.

“As soon as he gets home from school he wants to jump on and start playing with friends,” mom Jill Gerson said.

Gerson tries to stay close to monitor what’s going on and has had to intervene on a few occasions when she’s heard inappropriate language, but says she probably should do more.

“It’s concerning because sometimes I’m not sure who he’s playing with or what is happening in there,” she said.

Unfortunately, more is happening than many might realize.

We talked with 7-year-old Michael to ask him if anyone had ever approached him on these platforms:

ANGIE: Have you ever had a weirdo or a stranger approach you?

MICHAEL: Yeah.

ANGIE: What did they say?

MICHAEL: They know where I live.

ANGIE: Were you scared?

MICHAEL: Aah, kind of.

ANGIE: What did you do?

MICHAEL: Just left the game.

ANGIE: Did you tell your mom?

MICHAEL: No.

Thank goodness it stopped there, but it’s stunning for parents to hear just how close these encounters come.

“Super scary. Very scary,” said Gerson.

FBI: It’s not a game

The FBI produced a Public Service Announcement to warn parents about the dangers.

“It’s not a game. This could be happening to your child,” the narrator warns, as the video shows children playing video games with chat messages from strangers popping up.

“I always tell parents if you don’t have parental controls or you’re not watching what your kids are doing online, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when they come across one of these predators,” said Tim Wolford, FBI supervisory special agent.

Wolford heads the Violent Crimes Against Children task force in Pittsburgh and says predators set up fake profiles all the time to lure children.

“It could be just flattery where they’re telling the kid, ‘Hey, your profile picture is really beautiful. I would love another picture.’ And then, they’ll start to slowly walk them down that line of sending more and more inappropriate pictures and content,” Wolford explained.

A major tipoff that something is shady is when kids are asked to move to a different platform or a private chat room. Once that happens, things often escalate to what the FBI calls “sextortion” and children often feel trapped.

“In the worst-case scenarios what happens is once they get that picture, they know that kids would not want to be released — they then threaten that kid, ‘Hey I’m going to make this available to your parents’ or ‘I’m going to make this available to all your friends’ unless you send me even more inappropriate content.”

TIPS to protect your kids

The No. 1 thing you can do to block predators is set strict parental controls.

We walked through settings for Michael’s Fortnite game with his mom and adjusted the controls, so strangers can no longer contact him — an important step to give his mom a little more peace of mind.

“He loves it and I’d hate to take it away from him fully, but at the same time, you have to always watch,” Gerson said.

It’s also important to have a talk with your child about this. Let them know there are strangers out there who might try to trick them into sending inappropriate pictures, and if anyone does approach them, they need to tell you about it, right away. Be sure to tell your child they won’t be in trouble, and that even if they’re embarrassed or think they made a mistake, it’s still safe to talk to you.

More tips from the FBI to protect kids from online predators

  • Educate yourself about the websites, software, games and apps that your child uses.
  • Check their social media and gaming profiles and posts. Have conversations about what is appropriate to say or share.
  • Explain to your kids that once images or comments are posted online, they can be shared with anyone and never truly disappear.
  • Make sure your kids use privacy settings to restrict access to their online profiles.
  • Tell your children to be extremely wary when communicating with anyone online who they do not know in real life.
  • Encourage kids to choose appropriate screen names and to create strong passwords.
  • Make it a rule with your kids that they can’t arrange to meet up with someone they met online without your knowledge and supervision.
  • Stress to your children that making any kind of threat online — even if they think it’s a joke — is a crime.
  • Report any inappropriate contact between an adult and your child to law enforcement immediately. Notify the site they were using, too.