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Local experts warn about cyber threats to kids

(Special to the Enterprise)

Sex trafficking happens across Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

A recent report by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation found that 64 percent of victims receiving Safe Harbor sex trafficking prevention and recovery services were in Greater Minnesota, while 36 percent were in the Twin Cities area.

"Given the often hidden nature of sex trafficking, gathering accurate data on prevalence can be difficult," said the MDH news release.

The MDH Safe Harbor Program is the result of a 2011 law. It is intended to raise awareness, understanding and identification of the commercial sexual exploitation of youth. The program also coordinates the state response to sextrafficking with cross-sector partners.

This fall, the MDH and the Minnesota Lodging Association released sex trafficking prevention and response training materials for the Minnesota lodging industry. The training is a requirement of a 2018 Minnesota legislative mandate stating that employees of hotels and motels in Minnesota must be trained to recognize sex trafficking. Minnesota joins several other states in implementing this type of requirement.

Cyber threat

This fall, Hubbard County Social Services, Support Within Reach and the Park Rapids Police Department teamed up to present a family- and teen-friendly seminar about texting, human trafficking and exploitation.

As a Park Rapids Police detective sergeant, Sabin Rasmus said he sees the danger of children using smartphones and social media, like SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook. He's been in law enforcement for a dozen years.

"We have children that are talking to people that they think are their friends or their age and who end up being a predator or an older person," he said.

Hackers can capture and freeze private images — often without the victim realizing it has happened — then threaten to expose them publicly.

The U.S. Department of Justice has called "sextortion" the most important and fastest-growing cyber threat to children. The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines "sextortion" as "a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don't provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors or money."

Rasmus recommended contacting law enforcement immediately if someone is threatening you or a family member online. "Bring the phone to us instantly."

"We have arrested people that are trying to influence children and using them for other means, so it's not like it's not in our community. It's everywhere, and it's getting more and more widespread. Those predators are out there, and they don't care if you come from money or you are on welfare," he said.

Rasmus primarily sees 11- to 13-year-old females targeted. "It does happen to boys, too, but you just see more vulnerability with the young, teenage girls," he said.

Last year, there was a sting in the City of Park Rapids involving Backpage.com, a classified ad website that was primarily used for sex trafficking. Local law enforcement worked with Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on the operation, Rasmus said, and arrested four or five people. In April 2018, the FBI shut down the website.

"I'm also seeing, basically, my runaways or youth having issues at home being influenced by other people; for example, an older, adult male. They are taking advantage of the vulnerable kids. So as parents just be aware of that and talk to your kids," he continued.

While expensive, Rasmus said iPhones are the safest cell phone on the market. "Hackers cannot hack an iPhone if you have the privacy settings properly," he said.

Possession of child pornography is a felony in Minnesota, he warned.

"Everything you do on your phone, online, it can be found," Rasmus said. "They never go away."

Hackers and the like may think "delete" makes something illegal disappear from their smartphone or computers, but Rasmus said even a small community like Park Rapids has access to resources throughout the state of Minnesota.

"I know people from here all the way down to the Cities. I know some of the best techs in the world that can access this and we can find those people," he said.

Rasmus advises parents to educate youth about internet safety and to set boundaries. For example, he uses parental blocks to limit his small children's internet access. He also monitors their online experience.

Teens must be wary of what images they send and to whom.

"That's happened in our schools, our community, where boys are getting images from their younger friends or it's been passed around and now they are in possession of child pornography," Rasmus said.

Four Ts of trafficking

Sarah Stenger and Melissa Weikel are family-based services providers with Hubbard County Social Services Department. They discussed human trafficking.

Stenger explained that human trafficking or exploitation is treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work. It involves the recruitment or force through deception or violence.

"Most people think this doesn't happen in Minnesota," she said.

The FBI ranks Minnesota as the nation's 13th largest center for human trafficking of children, Stenger said. A 2010 study found that each month in Minnesota at least 213 underage girls are sold for sex five times per day through escort or internet services. The average age is 13 years old.

"Human trafficking can happen anywhere and to anyone, even in your own neighborhood."

Traffickers use the "Four Ts": Target, trick, turn and traumatize the victim.

First, they target vulnerable youth that look like they are alone or in small groups, Stenger said, at schools, malls, bus stops, stores, parks, streets or by creating false profiles on the internet.

"The trafficker tricks the victim into thinking they care and are a part of something that they are not. Most of the time, they'll try to form a friendship or a bond with the victim," she explained. The trafficker tries to build trust through gifts, compliments and favors.

Then the trafficker "turns" on the victim, often introducing drugs, criminal activity, blackmail, or violence. The end results is that the victim is traumatized.

Stenger said the goal of the presentation isn't to scare parents and teens, but just to raise awareness.

"Our youth are vulnerable. You have to talk to kids. You have to talk to your grandkids. I know it's a tough thing to talk about," she said.

Help is available locally. Anyone concerned about sexual exploitation, trafficking or assault should contact Samantha Stevens, sexual violence services coordinator for Hubbard County Support Within Reach in Park Rapids.

Support Within Reach is a private, non-profit, community service organization serving residents and those impacted by incidents of sexual violence in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Hubbard and Itasca counties. They offer victim support and advocacy through its 24-hour crisis line (1-800-708-2727) or the Park Rapids office (237-0300). Services include assistance with filing police reports, Harassment Restraining Orders (HRO), Orders for Protection (OFP), crisis intervention, ongoing basic counseling and accompaniment to sexual assault medical examinations at local emergency rooms.

Tips for teenagers

• Think twice if a friend asks you to do a favor for money.

• Be mindful of your friend dating older guys.

• Ask questions if your friend has large amount of money unexpectedly or an upgrade in her clothing, hair, nails, etc.

• Be accountable for your time and check in with your parents and friends.

• Be way of a stranger who you see several times in different places. They could be following you.

• Do no give a stranger your address.

• Listen to your gut feelings. If it feels weird or wrong, it probably is.

• Do not get into a car with a stranger.

• If you think someone is following you, try to stay in a crowded place. Tell them to stop or you will go to the police.

• Never open the door of your house or hotel room for someone you don't know.

• If someone asks if you are alone, tell them you're meeting a friend.

Tips for parents

The Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigation offers these suggestions for parents to protect children from sextortion and other internet scams.

• Monitor your children's use of the internet; keep your internet computer in an open, common room of the house.

• Tell your kids why it's important not to disclose personal information online.

• Check your kids' profiles and what they post online.

• Know who their friends are. Middle school children are the prime target for human trafficking, so get involved in your child's school so that you know who is who.

• Report inappropriate activity to the website or law enforcement immediately.

• Explain to your kids that once images are posted online they lose control of them and can never get them back.

• Instruct your kids to use privacy settings to restrict access to their social media profiles so only the individuals on their contact lists are able to view them.

• Remind kids to only add people they know in real life to their contact lists.

• Encourage kids to choose appropriate screen names or nicknames.

• Talk to your kids about creating strong passwords.

• Visit social networking websites with your kids, and exchange ideas about acceptable versus potentially risky websites.

• Ask your kids about the people they are communicating with online.

• Make it a rule with your kids that they can never give out personal information or meet anyone in person without your prior knowledge and consent. If you agree to a meeting between your child and someone they met online, talk to the parents/guardians of the other individual first and accompany your kids to the meeting in a public place.

• Encourage your kids to consider whether a message is harmful, dangerous, hurtful, or rude before posting or sending it online, and teach your kids not to respond to any rude or harassing remarks or messages that make them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused and to show you the messages instead.

• Educate yourself about the websites, software and apps that your child uses.