It's easy to spot predators going after your children on a playground, where you can keep an eye on them. Today, however, predators are more likely to approach your children through popular apps -- giving "stranger danger" an entirely new meaning.
A Hamilton County sheriff's deputy is warning Tri-State parents about a case where a predator coaxed children as young as 8 into sending naked photos and videos of themselves to strangers.
These predators are not out in public, according to Detective Don Minnich. These predators pose as same-aged friends chatting with children on fun game apps like Minecraft, Musical.ly and Roblox.
Minnich helped investigate the case of Ricahrd Devito, a Batavia man awaiting sentencing for crimes against children in the Tri-State and across the globe.
"He talked a lot of them into sending naked pictures and videos of themselves," Minnich said.
In June, Devito pleaded guilty to one count of production of child pornography. In U.S. District Court he admitted to persuading more than 25 minors to send him sexual or nude images of themselves online.
"He was posing as a 13-year-old girl, gain their trust, like their videos," Minnich said. "Start talking to them, then he would ask them to switch over to another app called ooVoo."
Devito possessed thousands of images and video files depicting child pornography, according to U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman.
"As a parent, this kind of predatory behavior over the internet is frightening," Glassman said in a written statement.
Here are some of the messages Devito sent to children on ooVoo and other apps, acting as a fellow teen:
Devito: "Hey where's video? Take one of you then I'll take one of me."
Victim: "Of what?"
Devito: "Of your underwear."
Some of Devito's requests were more graphic, Minnich said.
"Then he'd tell them what he would want them to do and tell them what kind of video to send," he said.
Devito faces 15 to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced, according to the Department of Justice.
Minnich said the number of predators and apps being used to coax children into sending photos and videos is overwhelming.
"There's days where you just shake your head and you can't believe it," he said.
When Minnich has to tell parents about the crimes, he said he's usually met with shock and heartbreak.
"We've had them break down in tears, some in disbelief to where we would have to show them the pictures or the videos -- we're not lying -- this is your child sending videos to people," Minnich said.
But Minnich said these situations are avoidable.
The app ooVoo, which shut down in 2017, was a video and chat messaging service for up to 12 people at one time.
ooVoo will be shutting down soon, thank you all for an amazing ride 💛 read more https://t.co/yZWWGcytnX
— ooVoo (@ooVoo) November 26, 2017
That app is no longer a concern to parents, but dozens more are available for download.
What you can do to protect your kids
If your child is playing on popular apps, parents can try the following to limit their child's exposure to potential predators:
- Know which apps your child has downloaded.
- Know if the apps have a "chatting" feature.
- Allow kids to only chat with other kids they know.
- Periodically check your child's messages.
"They really shouldn't have any privacy when it comes to their parents as far as when they're on these apps," Minnich said.
Most games and apps have administrators who keep an eye out for predators. That's why predators have children switch to apps that are easier to misuse, Minnich said.
The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force published a guide for parents called "Apps You Want To Know." Below are some of the apps with warnings for parents:
- Kik Messenger
There are several ways to report a suspected online predator.
- Call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: 1-800-THE-LOST
- Submit a report online at MissingKids.com .
- Kidsmartz.org offers more ways to keep your child safe from predators.
WCPO reached out to the developers of Minecraft, Musical.ly and Roblox for feedback on steps they take to protect children. WCPO is waiting for comment.