Social Networking Sites and Teen Prostitution 2012

The ring leader of an underage prostitution ring was sentenced to 40 years in prison this week. According to the Washington Post, federal prosecutors called the man the “’CEO’” of the largest underage prostitution ring” in the area’s history. Justin Strom was one of five defendants in the case, all of whom pleaded guilty to sex trafficking charges. The other four defendants were previously sentenced to prison terms totaling 53 years. Here’s how the ring operated.

The gang members would troll social networking sites such as Facebook, looking for attractive girls. The potential victims would be identified, and then contacted using a fake online identity. After complimenting their appearance, the defendants would ask if they could get to know the girls better, and indicated that the girls could make money as a result of their looks. If a teen expressed any interest, she would be asked for her cell phone number and for the opportunity to meet. The girls were then lured into prostitution, sometimes aided by alcohol and illegal drugs, and other times by threats of violence.

There were additional contacts that were initiated face-to-face at schools, on buses and at railway stations, although it appears that the internet contacts played a significant role in recruitment.

On September 14, the Federal Bureau of Investigation published a story on the sentencing subtitled “Gang Used Social Media Sites to Identify Potential Victims.” In addition to reporting on the case, the FBI offered tips on how to protect your children in connection with their computer use. The tips include talking to kids about sexual exploitation, being aware of who their friends are, and keeping tabs on their online activities. In addition, it was suggested that parents make sure their children’s privacy settings are high.

The fact is that you can control who can see certain information on social networking sites. But don’t assume that those settings will automatically be high, or that some of your personal information might not be available no matter what the settings are. By default, for example, privacy settings on Facebook allow anyone to find you using information such as your telephone number or email address. In order to modify who can look you up, you need to change that setting. You can also modify who can send you a message on Facebook; again, by default, anyone with an account (real or fictitious) can send you a message. Other privacy settings include who can look up your timeline, who can see your posts, your pictures, and who can add you as a friend. But even if your settings are properly changed to ward off any intrusion, remember that anyone can see your profile picture, your name, gender, and user name.

If you are a parent, it is more important than ever, in this age of digital technology, to be vigilant about your children’s use computers, in general, and of social media websites, in particular.

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