A Georgetown mother has been shaken after her 11-year-old daughter was found to be interacting with a potential sexual predator online last week.
In a live-streamed video addressed to her Facebook followers, which has since been viewed hundreds of times, Beth Sharp revealed her daughter had been communicating with someone claiming to be a 12-year-old girl through the popular app Pinterest. She later found out through Georgetown Police that it was likely a sexual predator attempting to groom her daughter for an in-person meeting.
Sharp’s daughter left her phone at home while attending school on Friday, Feb. 5. While she was cleaning, Sharp found her daughters phone and was surprised at what she saw.
“I sat down to take a little break, and as soon as I did, I heard her phone vibrate,” she said. “I wondered who was trying to reach her while she was at school. So, I opened her phone and that’s when I found the messages through Pinterest. I started reading through the messages, and of course I was reading them backward, so I was reading all the bad stuff first. I saw where they were talking about meeting up and then I saw the sexual part after that and the sexual content that they were saying to my child.”
Sharp said the messages were a “red flag” and that she immediately contacted the Scott County Sheriff’s Office, who then forwarded her to dispatch.
“I started reading them (dispatchers) some of the things that were in these messages and they sent an officer (from Georgetown Police Department) right away,” she said. “I didn’t know what to look for, but there was a red flag going off in me that said this is not a conversation with another 12-year-old girl.”
GPD dispatched an officer to Sharp’s residence, who told her that her daughter was likely talking to an adult man from overseas.
“At that point, my daughter had come home from school,” she said. “The look on her face when she saw an officer standing there with her phone.”
Because Pinterest is not primarily a message platform, the only way to exchange images and videos is to create a board where they can be shared. Sharp said the perpetrator created a private board that only the two of them could view.
“By the time I figured this part out, the board was deleted,” she said. “My daughter said no videos or photos were sent. She said something felt wrong about this conversation, so I asked her why she didn’t say anything and she didn’t know.”
Sharp said she spoke with a good friend, who is a counselor, who helped shed some light on the situation.
“She said kids feel that shame,” she said. “While it doesn’t seem right to them, it doesn’t process with them that it’s a grown man, and why would you tell you mom about something a 12-year-old girl is telling you? It was nice to have that broken down for me.”
Sharp then took a photo of the GPD officer and posted it in a private board to the perpetrator with a message to no longer contact the account. But she said this didn’t stop the perpetrator.
“I sent that and the person continued to blow my daughter’s phone up,” she said. “I have since blocked the person and I deleted my daughter’s account. I reported it to Pinterest, but I never heard back. The person tried to create two more chat boards with her, and I declined those.”
Sharp said reporting the information before deleting or blocking anything on social media accounts is important in order to provide evidence.
“Once you block that person, the whole chat will go away,” she said. “Contact authorities and check for private boards before you delete anything because once you block that person the whole thing goes away.”
Mike Littrell, detective and digital forensic examiner with the attorney general’s Cyber Crime Division, said keeping any conversations, images or videos is an important part of investigating these types of online cases.
“Don’t delete these conversations,” he said. “Get these conversations to the police. We will download them and use them as evidence in a potential prosecution.”
While some social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat or TikTok, may seem more predisposed to this type of activity, this isn’t the first time a situation like this has happened. Littrell said they’ve handled several cases just like this one involving all types of social media platforms, even Pinterest.
“We arrested a guy a few years ago who was actually pinning images of child pornography to a Pinterest board and we caught that,” Littrell said. “I’ve worked several cases in which an adult is pretending to be a child with the intention of soliciting photos or videos in chat conversation.”
Pinterest’s website has a policy against child exploitation that states “sexualization or sexual exploitation of minors, like grooming, sexual remarks or inappropriate imagery” will be reported. Social media platforms that feature messaging or private chats can be a breeding ground for this type of criminal activity, Littrell said.
“Any platform that has a communication method where children will congregate, there will be people who are looking for these types of images or this type of conversation,” he said.
It’s what Sharp called “grooming,” and Littrell said it’s a process perpetrators of these crimes use all the time.
“Grooming is a series of behaviors where the perpetrator is attempting to desensitize a child to sexual gratification or sexual knowledge or some such,” Littrell said. “Both hands-on offenders and those who do this online, they have to groom the child. Online it’s a little different because there’s not that environmental factor to groom, so we have to look for other things.”
Georgetown Police Detective Chris Faas, who is a member of the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAT) task force, said the smartest thing parents can do is monitor their child’s internet activity.
“I can’t tell you how many times that there’s people and their kids are on social media and on different online chat sites and the parents are none the wiser,” he said. “As innocent as it sounds, there’s individuals who just prey on young children and try to exploit stuff out of them. If you child has social media, I would keep an extremely close eye on it. Kids are adding other people and they have no idea who they are. They’re just adding them to get more followers or likes.”
In fact, Faas said he cannot remember a time when a child exploitation case, which in-person or online, didn’t involve social media in some way.
“I would say more often than not there’s some nexus to social media,” he said. “We get hands-on type offenses reported to us all the time - family member, someone at school, an ex, a date who won’t leave you alone - but especially in the cases that I’ve worked, almost every time, there is some sort of activity that goes on in social media that gets involved. It’s very seldom that they ever just send things through text messages.”
Faas said Kentucky has a law that prohibits the use of an electronic device to solicit a minor, even if images were not sent.
“If you’re an adult and you communicate with a minor to solicit images or videos or solicitation for the meeting or to have sex, it’s a Class D felony,” he said. “I get a lot of cases where it’s concerned parents who find out their child is talking to some guy or girl and have reason to believe they’re not the same age or they’re not on the up and up. I look into those as well.”
Sharp said she’s feels grateful that it was caught in time and her daughter is safe.
“There’s always a struggle with how much do you tell your kids?” she said. “You don’t want to terrify them, but you also want them to know there’s bad people out there. When all of this happened, I was very blatant with her. I wanted to scare the crap out of her because I wanted her to realize how terrible this really was. We’ve had some pretty hard conversations in the last couple of days, and you saw this look of horror come over her face and she just started sobbing. I think she realizes it and knows she can talk to me about anything.”
To report this type of activity, please contact local authorities or the attorney general’s office Cyber Crimes Division at 866-524-3672. For resources on how to talk to your child, please visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s website at www.missingkids.org.
Kyle Woosley can be reached at email@example.com.