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Over the past decade and a half, online predators have shifted their sights numerous times — from message boards to Facebook to Snapchat — as young users hop from one trending social network to another. Their latest hunting ground? Online video games.
As tech companies shift policy to try and ward off calls for increased regulation, as YouTube did recently in response to worries over child exploitation, or internet security provider Cloudflare did by removing protection for 8chan after links between the forum and the El Paso shooter were discovered, game studios and online game companies are beefing up security in efforts to keep young players safe.
“I am seeing an increase in sextortion through online games,” says Shannon Martucci, a child and adolescent forensic interviewer who works closely with FBI agents to combat online predators. “The way you have to look at it is, an offender who wants to perpetrate on children is going to go where the kids are.”
Sextortion — a term the FBI and others use for coercing an unwilling partner into sexual acts, especially online — can take many forms, but one common maneuver is for a predator to offer to pay for desirable character costumes or add-ons, known as skins. To prevent such encounters, one popular game, Roblox, looks for “players who want other players to go off-platform and on to third-party apps where there may be very little moderation,” says Remy Malan, the company’s vp trust and safety. Chat features on Roblox — which reported a 40 percent growth in revenue year-over-year ($76.6 million) in the first quarter — don’t allow users to share personal information like phone numbers or addresses. “We have a team of more than 800 human moderators globally along with AI and machine learning to address concerns around the clock,” says Tami Bhaumik, the company’s vp digital civility.
Roughly 211 million Americans play video games, according to a 2018 NPD report. Of that group, 28 percent are under 18. “We [used to see] sextortion cases on Facebook because that was the medium children were using,” says Greenberg Glusker partner Priya Sopori, who previously worked at the Department of Justice’s Project Safe Childhood initiative, which combats technology-enabled crimes against children. “What we see now is a shift more to video games as the behavioral model changes for children.”
In September, in one of the largest stings ever related to online gaming predation, a multi-agency undercover investigation dubbed “Operation Open House” led to the arrest of 24 people in New Jersey for allegedly using Fortnite and Minecraft to lure and groom minors for sex. Platforms like these have “made it much, much easier for predators to go online and target our kids,” explains FBI special agent Kevin Kaufman, who is assigned to the bureau’s Violent Crimes Against Children task force.
Kaufman says that the process through which predators lure minors is “like a script” where they use the same tactics over and over. “They use whatever they learned from the first victim to move on to the next victim,” he says.
Sextortion cases can carry a jail sentence of up to 30 years; while the average age of victims is 14, according to the FBI, Martucci has interviewed some as young as 8. The issue for officials trying to protect minors is that it can be hard to prevent young children from playing these online games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board rates Fortnite as T for teen, meaning its content is suitable for players age 13 and up, but the game does not restrict younger players from opening accounts. A class action suit was filed Aug. 8 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina (where developer Epic Games is headquartered) asking for $100 million in response to a data breach leaking personal information due to a “flaw in Fortnite‘s code.” Epic did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but the game’s code of conduct tells players to “keep account information safe and private” and states that the company investigates all feedback and takes action “when necessary.”
Both Xbox and PlayStation, meanwhile, require that online accounts for players under 18 in the U.S. be linked to and controlled by an adult’s account, which can set restrictions on what kids can do and say online. But it’s at the discretion of the parent to set such limitations, and once online, players can interact with all other age groups. “We have a dedicated safety team that works across Xbox Live 24 hours a day, seven days a week to review flagged content as quickly as possible and coordinate with law enforcement in those rare instances where it is necessary,” a Microsoft representative tells THR.
“The problem is that many platforms can be used for illegal conduct. Most platforms are still going to be responsible to some extent for illegal content that’s made available once they’ve become aware of it. That’s why many of the platforms have areas for reporting illegal content,” says Sopori.
It’s not falling only on game developers to keep young players safe. In 2017, to combat growing concerns of online predation, the Senate passed the Protect Our Children Act — reauthorizing a nationwide network of 61 coordinated task forces made up of some 3,500 federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies working to combat child exploitation. “Predators will exploit any means they can to access minors,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic presidential candidate who was among the bipartisan backers of the legislation, in an email to THR. “As predators have become increasingly sophisticated in their efforts to victimize children using technology, we need to ensure that our law enforcement officials have the resources that they need.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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