Abcarian: Those killings linked to a man ‘catfishing’ a teen girl? A reminder that kids are easy prey

I’m raising a middle school student who spends too much time on Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube, so I’m already wary of the dangers social media poses to teens.

But the internet-driven chaos unleashed on a family in Riverside the day after Thanksgiving shook me and every parent I know.

What authorities have said so far is that a 15-year-old girl was “fished” online hooked on a man posing as a 17-year-old boy. The man, 28-year-old Austin Lee Edwards, showed up at her home and apparently killed her mother and grandparents, set the house on fire and then fled with the girl.

Spotted portrait illustration of Robin Abcarian

opinion columnist

Robin Abcarian

Hours later and miles away, Edwards, a Virginia police officer, killed himself.

According to the police, the girl was at least physically unharmed. However, can you imagine her emotional wounds?

We don’t have many more details about the incident, only the tragic outlines and an emerging understanding that Edwards had a troubling past. What we do know is enough to make me confiscate my 12-year-old niece’s iPad and lock her up in a high-rise building until she’s 25.

Instead, I read her news about the Riverside case and emphasized that anyone can fall victim to this type of deception.

On the Monday after school, I sat her in front of my computer, went to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s website, and played a few short videos about catfishing and sextortion. The videos vividly illustrate how a teenage boy or girl can be tricked into sending inappropriate photos and then be extorted for money or more explicit images by a person pretending to be someone other than themselves. If the young people don’t comply, the catfish fisherman threatens to make their pictures public. The perpetrators make contact by posting fake profiles, sending friend requests and pretending to have mutual friends with the victims. It is very easy to see how children can be duped.

“For the first time in history,” says neuroscientist Andrew Doan in one of the videos, “we’re letting strangers interact with our children — in the back seat of our cars, in their bedrooms, in their homes.”

My niece was fascinated and surprised by the videos. I think – I pray – that she’s finally starting to understand that you can’t trust strangers on the internet.

Why is this so hard to grasp?

“Physiologically, they don’t understand who’s out there and what people are capable of,” Virginia federal prosecutor Elizabeth Yusi says in one of the videos my niece saw. Yusi followed the catfishing/sextortion case of a former Navy top gun pilot who ensnared at least nine girls between the ages of 12 and 17. The judge who sentenced the pilot to 600 months in prison said his actions were sadistic and equated to torture.

A few months ago my niece and one of her friends were sitting at home on their beds playing a game together on the Roblox website called Adopt Me. My niece’s boyfriend had spent weeks collecting enough credits or Robucks to buy a neon owl icon. A stranger entering the game wanted to see the neon owl and promptly stole it.

Don’t ask me to explain how it happened; All I know is that my niece’s boyfriend was heartbroken. Both were so upset they deleted Roblox which was fine with me.

But here’s the thing that made my heart sink. Afterwards, when my niece told me what happened, I said, “But I’ve told you countless times that you can’t trust strangers on the internet, right?”

“Yes,” she said through tears. “But I guess something bad had to happen to me before I could believe you.”

As I researched catfishing, I came across the names of some famous victims: former soccer player Manti Te’o and country music star Brad Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley.

In 2012, Te’o, then a Notre Dame star, was bullied by a young person tangled in gender dysphoria posing as a Stanford University student. The “relationship” took place entirely online and in letters. Te’o was told that his “girlfriend” died of leukemia the same day his grandmother died. Reporters went crazy over the “heartbreaking and inspirational” story.

The ruse was discovered after Deadspin reporters received a tip – and investigated – that the girlfriend never existed.

Around the same time, the Paisleys were hooked by a woman claiming to be the mother of a child suffering from terminal brain cancer. The sick child allegedly asked her mother to get in touch with Williams-Paisley, who was then starring in the television series Nashville. The mother did not ask the Paisleys for money. But Paisley sang “Amazing Grace” over the phone to the non-existent child, which formed the basis of the “stealing of office” charge that landed the scammer in jail.

I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how to balance my niece’s privacy with the efforts I have to make to protect her. I chose to be a tough ass. Your iPad is mine, I remind you. I have the passwords for their accounts and I check them regularly to keep track of their online activity.

“Are you checking my messages?” she asked the other day, curiosity mixed with indignation.

“Yes, I am,” I replied. “And I probably will until I’m confident that you understand that bad things can happen to kids who are too trusting online. You’re not there yet.”

I don’t mind playing the wicked witch at home. It’s better than locking them in a tower.

@AbcarianLAT Abcarian: Those killings linked to a man ‘catfishing’ a teen girl? A reminder that kids are easy prey

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