“We couldn’t have imagined that so many people would join in just 12 months,” Google executive Vic Gundotra gushed. Facebook reports having 955 million monthly users so put that all together and you have a huge pile of unfiltered information, much of it trivial, a little of it interesting but some of it also quite dangerous.
A recent FBI report summarizing a long-running case in Virginia shows just how dangerous social media can be and provides yet another reason why parents need to keep a close eye on their kids’ involvement with social sites.
During a three-year period ending in March 2012, members of a violent Virginia street gang used social media to recruit vulnerable high-school age girls to work in their prostitution business, the FBI recounted.
Five defendants in the case recently pleaded guilty to federal charges and the gang leader —27-year-old Justin Strom—was sentenced to 14 to 40 years in prison, while the sentences handed down for the other four defendants totaled 53 years.
Strom headed up the Underground Gangster Crips (UGC), a Crips “set” based in Fairfax, Virginia. The Crips originated in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and since then, the gang has splintered into various groups around the country. Law enforcement has seen a number of Crips sets in the U.S. engaging in sex trafficking as a means of making money.
Trolling the web
That’s certainly what was happening in Virginia, as the FBI and local media tell it. Strom and his UGC associates would troll social networking sites, looking for attractive young girls. After identifying a potential victim, they would contact her online using phony identities, complimenting her on her looks, asking to get to know her better, sometimes offering her the opportunity to make money as a result of her looks.
If the victim expressed interest, Strom or one of his associates would ask for her cell phone number to contact her offline and make plans to meet.
After some flattery about their attractiveness, sometimes hits of illegal drugs and alcohol, and even mandatory sexual “tryouts” with Strom and other gang members, the girls were lured into engaging in commercial sex, often with the help of more senior girls showing them the ropes. The girls might be sent to an apartment complex with instructions to knock on doors looking for potential customers…or driven to hotels for pre-arranged meetings…or taken to Strom’s house, where he allowed paying customers to have sex with them.
Some of the juvenile victims were threatened with violence if they didn’t perform as directed and many were given drugs or alcohol to keep them sedated and compliant.
Strom and his associates did not discriminate—their victims were from across the socio-economic spectrum and represented different ethnic backgrounds.
Tips for parents
Here's some advice from the FBI on keeping your kids safe:
Talk to your kids about the dangers of being sexually exploited online and offline.
Make sure your kids’ privacy settings are high, but also keep in mind that information can inadvertently be leaked by friends and family…so kids should still be careful about posting certain information about themselves—like street address, phone number, Social Security number, etc.
Be aware of who your kids’ online friends are, and advise them to accept friend requests only from people they know personally.
Know that teens are not always honest about what they are doing online. Some will let their parents “friend” them, for example, but will then establish another space online that is hidden from their parents.
Teens sometimes employ an “Internet language” to use when parents are nearby. For example:
- PAW or PRW: Parents are watching
- PIR: Parents in room
- POS: Parent over shoulder
- LMIRL: Let’s meet in real life