Winnipeg police have recently investigated seven cases of online predators who lure children through gaming consoles, a problem that is often undetected and under-reported.
Det.-Sgt. Darren Oleksiuk of the Winnipeg Police Service’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit said police are made aware of new cases of luring through online gaming each month and have investigated seven recently.
All but one involved a Winnipeg child interacting with a suspected predator in the United States.
CBC contacted several police organizations across Canada. While many indicated they were aware of cases, none would share details.
Searches of court files found three cases of predators luring children through online games, leading to arrests in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Trois Rivieres, Que. and St. John’s, N.L.
Signy Arnason, the director of Cybertip.ca, said the organization has warned parents about predators using gaming consoles to contact children since 2005.
Online luring cases go unreported
Cybertip.ca receives numerous tips about luring through videogames and passes on about 10 a year to police, which lead to investigations. But Arnason suspects the majority of luring attempts are going unreported.
“It's a hard thing to get a statistic on, because [...] stats, likely, are about people who have been arrested and not those who have attempted to approach kids and lure them online,” said Arnason.
Arnason also said kids are reluctant to tell their parents after they’re approached online, for fear of having their games taken away, something echoed by Oleksiuk.
“[Children] almost feel like they're being penalized for letting their parents know what happened,” said Oleksiuk.
He stressed parents and kids need to talk before it happens about what to do if approached online. But to do that, parents need to be aware of the potential danger posed by online games.
Game chatrooms reveal sexual requests
To better understand the world of online gaming, CBC reporter Gosia Sawicka signed up for Playstation Home, a free game accessible via the Playstation 3.
Sawicka posed as a 13 year-old girl under the username Em_giirl13 and explored the public areas of the game, interacting with other players.
Within a matter of minutes, Em_giirl13 was approached by several individuals. Many asked her sexually explicit questions, even after learning she was just 13.
Sawicka also received requests for photos, numerous private messages and invitations to voice chat.
Several individuals indicated they were the same age as Em_giirl13, something Oleksiuk said may be a tactic of a potential predator.
According to him, child predators are “professionals” when it comes to targeting children and will do whatever it takes to establish a relationship online.
“They try to be the same age. They try to be a friend and try to be like the person and that's classic grooming on behalf of the offender,” said Oleksiuk.
CBC showed a short video of Em_giirl13 being approached on Playstation Home to Andrew Gilbrath, the parent of a pre-teen son.
Gilbrath said what he saw was “disturbing” and said he didn’t understand why the gaming companies were allowing it to happen.
“I believe what they should be focusing on is child safety. That's the number one concern,” said Gilbrath.
CBC contacted Sony (Playstation 3), Microsoft (Xbox 360) and Nintendo (Wii) to ask them what they do to keep kids safe on their networks. The Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) issued a statement on their behalf.
According to the ESAC’s director of public relations, Julien Lavoie, members of his organization “care about the safety of users and gamers,” but he stressed “parents and their kids should always use caution and vigilance when engaging with any form of connected media.”
Mark Hecht, the co-founder of Beyond Borders, an anti-child exploitation/anti-trafficking organization, disagrees with the notion that safety is the responsibility of the end user. He said the companies make money marketing their systems to children and should take the safety of their customers more seriously.
“It’s unfair to put pressure on a 12-year-old to make the same decisions that a 20-year-old would make,” said Hecht.
He said many kids go as far as having secret email and social network accounts to prevent their parents from tracking their online activities.
“So while many parents think they’re very aware of what their kids are doing online, the reality is they’re probably not,” said Hecht.
According to Hecht, he would like to see the gaming companies take the initiative to improve safety, but if that doesn’t happen, Beyond Borders “would support government regulation.”
New York state is one of the most recent examples of government stepping in to keep kids safe while playing online games.
In 2012, the state Attorney General’s office asked several online gaming companies to ban accounts associated with registered sex-offenders.
Since “Operation Game Over” began in April 2012, the Attorney General’s office said more than 5,500 of New York state’s sex offenders have been removed from online games.