hacking-2903156_1920.jpg

“You can pretend to be anyone you want to on the Internet,” said Detective April Samples, with the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office.

CONCORD — Just like anywhere, sexual predators are living in Cabarrus County neighborhoods.

Assistant District Attorney Ashlie Shanley says the courts deal with those cases on a weekly basis.

According to the N.C. Sex Offender Registry, 543 registered sex offenders live in Cabarrus County.

A registered sex offender could be a neighbor or relative, or could be standing right next to your child.

Local law officials are informing the public about the warning signs and ways to prevent child sexual abuse.

In most instances, engagement between an adult and minor that ultimately leads to lewd acts starts on the Internet. Other sexual abuse cases are caused by an acquaintance of the child.

However, Shanley says, the courts are seeing an increase in cases where adults meet juveniles through social media or the Internet.

According to a story published by the New York Times, phone apps, video games and online chats sites are hunting grounds for sexual predators.

Shanley provided examples from within the past few years that show how adults persuade underage children into sexual acts.

All the offenders in these cases were arrested and charged in Cabarrus County for indecent liberties with a child. The names are withheld to protect the victims:

A 13-year-old victim met a 22-year-old offender online. They communicated online, and he obtained her address, picked her up and engaged in sex acts with her in Cabarrus County.

A 19-year-old offender communicated with who he thought was a 13-year-old, but instead was an undercover officer. The 19-year-old sent nude photos to who he thought was the 13-year-old child.

A 23-year-old offender sent nude photos of himself to a 15-year-old Cabarrus County victim, and he convinced the teen to send him photos of her.

A 20-year-old offender met a 15-year-old Cabarrus County victim on Instagram and solicited her to meet him for sexual acts.

A 19-year-old offender from Georgia met a 14-year-old on a dating website. The 19-year-old drove from Georgia to the victim’s home in Cabarrus County for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts.

“The DA’s office is seeing an increase in this type of crime,” Shanley said. “I think these are the most typical, but I think parents would be surprised that this is going on to this level.”

In these cases, Shanley says, arrests are made because a parent or friend notices something different with the minor, or the girls come forward after the fact because they didn’t mean for it to go that far.

According to North Carolina law, a minor cannot consent to having sex with someone who is more than four years older.

According to the Commercially Sexual Exploited Children, adults are meeting these children for the purposes of sexual acts, sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

They are meeting these children on gaming websites, SnapChat, Instagram, Kik, Meetme.com, WhatsApp, Roblox, and dating websites including Tinder, Grindr and Plenty of Fish.

“The Internet is a dangerous place. You can pretend to be anyone you want to on the Internet,” said Detective Sgt. April Samples, with the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office.

Warning signsParents and friends need to pay attention to some of the warning signs of child sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

Children who are sexually abused often appear malnourished and in poor health. They are quiet, avoid eye contact and social interaction, are often moody and have trust issues, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Samples says the most vulnerable victims are teenage girls who leave home, don’t have strict parental supervision or have parents who don’t monitor their social media activity.

“Gaming sites, that’s a child predator’s dream. They can go in there and pretend to be another kid,” Samples said. “Parents need to talk to their kids. Not everybody is as they seem online. If anybody tries to get you off a legit site onto something else to chat, that’s a big red flag.”

Shanley said what law enforcement is learning is that engagement with adults and children occur at night, while a minor is checking her phone before bed.

She advises parents to monitor their child’s social activity, even if that means collecting their phones before bedtime.

“Parents, you have got to monitor; and two, you have to set boundaries,” Shanley said. “Monitor what your kid is doing online, collect the devices at night and have some rules. I don’t think apps should be downloaded without parent consent.”

‘To Catch a Predator’A new prevention that the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office has recently started is sexual exploitation stings.

Samples said deputies are now doing stings to catch sexual predators.

Those stings are similar to the former hit show “To Catch a Predator” on MSNBC.

In those situations, officers are pretending to be minors to lure adults who scour and meet teens through online chatrooms.

Currently there are seven offenders in the Cabarrus County Jail on charges of indecent liberties with a child.