| Grooming

How an online predator contacts your child

Alžbeta Kovaľová | 08 Dec 2023

Social media, chat rooms, instant messaging, and online games: all of these offer amazing opportunities for your kids. They can talk to their friends and have fun sharing videos and playing games. At the same time, though, they make it very easy for anyone to contact your child, be it through a message, a comment under a video, or through a game.

We sat down with Kristina Kovesova, a reporter from a Slovak TV channel Markiza and host Reflex show, as well as the author and host of the podcast The Crime Profile (Profil zločinu). Kristina often talks to crime victims and has caught several child sexual predators online herself, having turned them over to the police subsequently. We asked her about her experience helping catch the perpetrators and cases where she has had the privilege of talking to the affected children.

Hey, wanna chat?

“Online grooming happens to children of all ages. From as young as 7 or 8 years of age, through online games, to 13-year-olds and older on social media. And the modus operandi is different depending on the age of the child,” says Kristina.

She explains that when it comes to younger children, the perpetrator tends to contact the child through a game, where they might offer them lives, digital credits and points in exchange for photos.

“The predator would for example make the child believe that what they were doing was just an innocent game. For example, they might ask them to take a funny photo, but with time, the requests get more and more explicit. It could get to a point where the predator asks the child to bend over, show their underwear or even take it off. It usually reaches a point where the child is not comfortable with what the person wants them to do. I once had a case of a 9-year-old girl who came to me and said that that man promised her points in a game in exchange for a photo, but she didn´t get any,” Kristina recalls.

The approach seems to be a little different when it comes to teens. Here, the perpetrator tends to take on a persona of a friend (a handsome boy when talking to girls and vice versa), or they pretend to be from a modeling agency, or a personal trainer. Sometimes, they even use multiple profiles and contact the child from many sides.

“We have had an instance where a couple was pretending to be a modeling scout online. And they had multiple fake profiles where they would send messages to the girls such as, ‘Oh, I also shoot for them,’ and ‘I saw you´ll also be a part of our agency, welcome,’” Kristina says, recalling a case she has been involved in.

There are instances where the grooming gets so far that the groomer finds out where the child goes to school and starts to send them messages such as, “Nice pink sweater you have on.” They use this as leverage to push the child to keep sending photos and videos of themselves.

A groomer´s guide

The first step of groomers is to establish trust. There are many different approaches, as far as Kristina recalls. “For example, in the case of young girls, the perpetrator would send fake photos of “himself”, pretends to be interested, later to be in love. The “relationship” gets gradually more serious and then he asks her to send him something. “We can trust each other, right?” he could say. And after the girl sends something more erotic, then the blackmail starts.” Kristina describes.

It is very hard – almost impossible – to completely shield children from all of this; complete destruction of the online world is never the answer. A child psychologist, Jarmila Tomkova, advises parents to start explaining digital hygiene to their children as soon as preschool.

To read more about the inner world of a groomed child and to find out what to do to help and prevent grooming, read our interview with child psychologist Jarmila Tomková.

In the cases Kristina had encountered, the groomer’s second step usually is to get as much material as they need, be it for their personal use or as part of an established criminal group. The perpetrator pushes the child with blackmail or threats for as long as they will comply with their requests. “The victims told me that it only stopped after they deleted their profiles. And many of them could only get themselves to talk about it years after it happened.” Says Kristina.

“The more we talk about it, the more young people notice it. Every day, I get messages from girls that now, if a predator approaches them online, they don´t reply. I always tell them to grab a screenshot, back up their data and turn them over to the police.” Kristina recalls. She then continues: “Unfortunately, the reality is that only a small percentage of sexual assaults online make it to the police and the perpetrator is found and punished.”

What do I do now?

When we give a child a smartphone, we are ultimately giving them a powerful weapon. Sexual predators are master manipulators. Professionals who know exactly what to. From Kristina’s experience in Slovakia, there is a huge problem with sexual assaults and child pornography online. “For example, I am currently studying a case where someone uploaded an ad saying they are looking for a child for sex,” says Kristina.

Experts in the field stress that prevention is very important; so is talking to the kids about the dangers that await them online, as well as about grooming itself. They need to be equipped as well as they can in order to know what to do when facing such a threat. For the police to act, they need evidence, so it is necessary to take screenshots, back up communications and, of course, bring all of that to the police. Often, when the perpetrator feels suspicious of being found out, they often delete all messages and traces of their interaction with the child. Another issue is the things that we (both kids and adults) willingly post online, though.

Create a safer online world

“A member of the police from the Department of Cybercrime in Slovakia once told me that a good way is for the parents to sit down with their children and look at the kid’s social media together. Have a look at what they post, who their online friends are, who they talk to. All in a sense of a friendly conversation, not to make it sound like an interrogation. I met moms who told me that they show their kids one of my episodes on TV where an 11-year-old girl started talking to a young guy virtually but later, when they agreed to meet up, it turned out to be an older dude who wanted to assault her.

To understand better how to talk to your kids about the online world, including how and when to start educating them, read our interview with child psychologist Jarmila Tomková.

“You know, there are so many cases… I know dozens of victims that were sexually violated, and the perpetrators found them online. Almost all of this happened while the victims were still children. Some were being assaulted for a week, some for years. Their pain and trauma are enormous, and it sticks with them forever. And it is sad to see that the predators often go unpunished. It is very important to stop this, or at least to try to limit it. The situation is bad, especially in Slovakia, and we fail on many levels in terms of protecting children,” concludes Kristina.

Online grooming is not an easy topic and we certainly don’t discuss it enough. The more parents, educators and other adults know, the sooner they can figure out what is happening to the children around us. Talk to kids and make sure you play the role of an adult who they trust and feel confident talking to about anything in their life.

We are so happy for having had the opportunity to talk to Kristina. We thank her for what she is doing for the kids, for trying to make the online world a better and safer place.

About the author

Alžbeta Kovaľová /
Security writer

Alžbeta has worked at ESET for two years...

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