How to Abduct a 7-Year-Old Boy
*This is an expose written to bring attention to how child kidnapping and sex trafficking happens online in 2020. Mature and upsetting themes are discussed. Reader discretion is advised.*
In the year 2000, after the world’s computer systems didn’t collapse at midnight on New Year’s Day, I was playing a massively multiplayer online game (MMO) called EverQuest. I was 9 years old.
I was part of a guild: a group of people who played together at specific times and helped each other advance in the game. We communicated via the built-in text chat. There was no voice chat available in online games back then.
I learned a lot of internet shorthand from playing EverQuest, like afk (away from keyboard), brb (be right back), and roflmao (rolling on floor laughing my ass off). I also learned some colorful vocabulary words, like bastard and snare.
Some of the guild members I played with were people my dad or uncles knew in real life. Others we didn’t know from Adam. But we’d stay up late, playing the game and chatting. For big raids (when a group is going after a big monster) we would connect a headset to our home telephone and group-call some of the guild members we knew.
As I got older, I had a Myspace page, a Xanga blog, and multiple AngelFire websites. By the time I was 12, I was proficient in coding front-end websites and managed an online advice forum for pre-teens.
At sleepovers as a teenager, after the parents had fallen asleep, my friends and I would sneak onto the computer and jump into AOL chatrooms. In those days, the very first question people asked was a/s/l. It stood for age/sex/location. We answered in the same format, pretending to be older than we were.
Men would ask how many boyfriends we’ve had, whether or not we’re virgins, and if we shave our pubic hair.
When I was 13, a friend and I decided to try to figure out how easy it would be to find out where someone lives from their MySpace. We chose people who were in middle or high school, in different states, who we didn’t know. We ended up searching for about 10 different people. Within only about 10 minutes, we were able to figure out what school the person went to, every time.
I tell you this to give you some background. I am a 29-year-old woman who grew up on the internet. My formative years were spent online — though I spent significantly less time online than the average teenager does today.
I tell you this because, while names and specific situations have been changed, the stories I’m about to tell come from personal, first-hand experience. These are the stories of one girl growing up on the internet.
When people talk about internet safety and the risks of social media for teens, this is what they mean. This is how it happens.
(One of the stories below is written from the point of view of the predator. It may be uncomfortable to read, but I believe it’s important. Names and some non-relevant details have been changed in all stories to preserve anonymity.)
Oh my. What a handsome little boy. He looks to be 6 or 7. Wow….
He’s in a photo of a home for sale, standing next to the for sale sign. I wonder if that’s the agent’s son?
The agent’s name is Joe Kearny. I search for his name on Google and the top result is his Facebook.
Oh wow… Lots of photos of that cute boy on here. Every post seems to be public. Ok, the boy’s name is Max. Max Kearny.
He is very attractive. I’ve seen photos of other boys like him, but this time… This time I have a name. And he lives close.
His dad shared a photo 2 weeks ago from Max’s instagram account. MaxKearny2013. I wonder if that’s the year he was born?
Max’s Instagram is public, and… oh my god, the very first picture, him in the bubble bath. Wow… I want this boy.
I scroll through his Instagram. He’s into baseball. In one of the posts, he tags his coach. I tap on the coach’s Instagram handle, find his name, look him up online. He coaches T-ball at Westwood Elementary. That must be Max’s school.
Back to Max’s profile. He likes ice cream; vanilla is his favorite flavor. He goes to the zoo with his dad a lot. I live only 30 minutes from the zoo. I wonder if he’ll be there this weekend?
On September 9th, he posted a photo that it was his birthday. He just turned 7. He also likes to go to those batting cages on Palmetto Ave. I wonder if he’ll be there this weekend?
At least 11 out of every 1,000 children in the United States will go missing. In a study of 9,872 attempted child abductions, it was found that 70% of children were taken on school days, mostly around the time they walk home from school or play outside in their neighborhoods.
The predator in the story was able to find the information he’d need to kidnap Max within 10 minutes or less. It was all easy to find with a quick Google search, and all publicly available.
With this information, the predator might start by visiting the zoo or batting cages on the weekends. If he sees the boy, he might start up an innocent conversation. For example, “Wow, you’re really good! How often do you come to the batting cages?”
The father could be present for this conversation and see no red flags. Predators don’t walk around with a sign that says PREDATOR. They don’t “look creepy,” they know how to behave around adults, and are oftentimes charming.
The predator might park down the street from the batting cages and watch the boy and his father drive up. He makes note of the vehicle, where they park, and what direction they’re coming from.
He might park down the street from the school, and see if that same vehicle he saw at the batting cages picks up Max. He’ll watch for him, follow him from a distance, and learn his habits. Then go home at night and spend hours looking at his photos on Instagram.
Eventually, he’ll run out of patience. Maybe Max’s birthday will come around, and the predator will use that day to make his move. He might show up at Max’s school, greet him, and say, “Hey Max! Remember me? Happy birthday! Your dad is working late showing homes, so he asked me to pick you up. He said we could go to the park and play catch while we wait for him. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
Max would get in the car and be gone.
In addition to force, the most common method used by offenders in child kidnappings is talking to the child and coercing them to get in their vehicle. In 51% of the cases of attempted abduction, it was the child walking or running away that stopped the incident. An adult only intervened in 21% of the attempted abductions. That means the child had to have enough knowledge and confidence to stop their own abduction. They had to know to walk away, to not get into the vehicle.
But in the case of Max, the predator knew many details about him. Max, at 7 years old, might not comprehend all of that information is available online. To him, the predator sounds like he knows him, knows his dad, and can be trusted. Would Max walk away? Would he tell a teacher? Or was the predator convincing enough that he wouldn’t think twice about leaving with him, especially to go do something he loves — playing catch.
The story of Max Kearny is heartbreaking because he is only 7 years old and his dad controls his public Instagram account. I approached the father when I realized he was publicly sharing photos of, and information about, his son. I explained how easy it would be for a predator to find out his son’s name, birthday, where he goes to school, and some of his favorite activities.
The father got angry; he accused me and another person who voiced concerns of being ridiculous for insinuating he was doing anything to put his son at risk. Thankfully, he did at least make his son’s Instagram account private.
But there are still a number of concerns here, and this father is definitely not unique.
Many of us have fallen victim to accepting friend requests on Facebook from fake people, or from accounts pretending to be someone we know. When you post a photo of your child on Facebook — even just to your friends and not publicly — it can be accessed by predators unbeknownst to you.
In addition, we all know the heartbreaking stories of pastors, teachers, and trusted family members who have been found guilty of possessing child pornography. An alarming number of child abductions are perpetrated by people who know the child. Pictures we may think are cute and innocent — a naked baby butt, a preteen in her cheerleading outfit — can be addicting for predators, fueling their fantasies and turning the child into a target, especially if the predator has access to or knows the family.
In the study of child abductions by the National Institute for Missing and Exploited Children, only 13% of the apprehended offenders were registered sex offenders. The rest were first-time offenders — or it was simply the first time they were caught.
I’m playing Fortnite one afternoon, in a game mode called Squads, which puts me in a group with 3 random people. I have a headset so I can talk to them, strategize, and chat.
I’ve heard all of the usual stuff you’d expect chatting on a video game mostly played by kids: obnoxious music playing in the background, telling other players they suck at the game, non-stop profanity. Occasionally people will ask how old I am, or what timezone I’m in, but mostly people are respectful or don’t talk at all.
I’m matched with 3 people, one of whom has a headset and a username that is a phone number. He says “Hello?” right away. I respond, “Hi”. There’s some background noise from another headset and we don’t talk much. After the round, phone-number-guy asks if I want to play again. I tell him sure, and am immediately friended and added to a group with him and one other person.
The other person doesn’t speak English. He occasionally whispers something in Spanish, which I don’t understand. Phone-number-guy immediately asks me where I’m from.
California, I lie.
“Oh, wow, California. Wait, what part?”
Southern, I say.
“Oh, like what part of southern?”
This is more specific than anyone has asked before. I give him the first city name that comes to mind and move on to normal game-chat. Shortly after, he asks me my name.
I don’t respond. He keeps asking. “Hello? Hey, [username] you there? What’s your name? Hello? Hello? [Username]? What’s your name?”
He is relentless. I sit with my mic muted, listening to his persistent asking of my name. I finally unmute my mic and pretend I hadn’t heard him ask, that my headset had malfunctioned.
“Oh,” he says, “well what’s your name?”
I tell him to call me by my username, that’s what everyone calls me. He laughs, but it sounds dark and sarcastic. “Ok, alright, yeah that’s a good one,” phone-number-guy says. The other guy says something in Spanish.
A short while later, phone-number-guy says, “wait, how old are you?”
These are the only questions he’s asked me. We’ve only been playing for about 5 minutes. I tell him I’m in my 30s. He just says “oh” and doesn’t ask me a single other question.
I make a joke about how it’s awkward to be an old woman playing with 8-year-olds. He says he wouldn’t know anything about that.
As soon as the match is over, he tells me he’s going to go find other people to play with, and kicks me out of the group.
Phone-number-guy told me he was 17, but he sounded like he was well into his 20s. As soon as he heard I was a girl, he immediately wanted to chat with me more. The questions were rapid-fire and persistent. When he found out I was an adult, he was no longer interested in talking to me.
While this could have been innocent or teenage awkwardness, something much more nefarious could have been happening. Perhaps if I’d said I was younger, we might keep playing together. Maybe his mic would start acting up and he’d ask me to call him instead. He could have a notebook where he tracks usernames, whether they are male or female, where they live and how old they are. Over time, a child might be coerced into giving more information. And if the child did end up calling phone-number-guy, he would now have the child’s number, making them easy to find with reverse phone lookup services that are widely available.
Phone-number-guy could be one of many predators working together to get information. If I had been his target demographic, I might have gotten a friend request from someone else, who then asks me the same questions. If I answered differently about where I live, he might get angry and accuse me of lying, using that to bully me into telling the truth.
Increasingly, children become victims of sextortion, a type of grooming and exploitation that happens online. Sextortion typically occurs via phone messaging apps, social media, and video chat. The sextortion victims were contacted by predators on multiple platforms in 42% of cases studied by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and ranged in age from 8–17 years old.
In a typical sextortion incident, the offender finds out some information about where the child lives or who their friends are. On Instagram and TikTok, it’s easy to find a kid’s profile and read through comments on their posts to find their friends. Armed with friends’ names, activities they do, and memes they like, the offender then reaches out to a child and starts a conversation.
The offender might say they are 15, and they used to go to the same middle school as them. “do u kno tyra?” the offender might ask. “oh she used to play soccer with my little brother.” This information is used to form a relationship, via messaging or chat apps, with the child. Over time, the conversation may start to change. The offender might ask for a photo of the child, then another one with her shirt off. The offender might say something like, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
Other tactics used in sextortion include:
- Developing a bond by establishing a friendship/romantic relationship
- Using multiple online identities against a given child, such as the person blackmailing for sexual content as well as pretending to be a supportive friend or a sympathetic victim of the same offender
- Pretending to be younger and/or a female
- Threatening to commit suicide if the child does not provide sexual content
Eventually, offenders coerce the child into sending sexually explicit photos and videos. Sometimes the goal of the offender is to obtain this content; other times, the offender uses the photos as blackmail, threatening to send the photos to their parents unless they meet them in person and have sex.
In 2019, the CyberTipline received 16.9 million reports of child sexual exploitation on the internet. This resulted in over 69 million photos and videos of child pornography. Over 15 million of the reports came from Facebook alone.
It’s important to remember that child pornography is not just explicit photos and videos. It is depicting real abuse that has happened to that child. Underage victims of sextortion face negative emotional and mental effects, even if they only send photos and never face any physical harm.
In the cases where the offender uses these tactics to initiate an in-person meeting, the receiving of the sexual material and the blackmail to meet in person occurs on the same day 80% of the time. This limits the time for parents who monitor their child’s internet use to find the activity before the child is taken.
While sextortion happens to both girls and boys, boys “were disproportionately more likely to have sent sexually explicit content of themselves, received sexually explicit images of offenders… and made specific plans to meet offenders in person.”
Grooming & Human Trafficking
When I was 16, I was visiting a friend at work and met his co-worker, a 28-year-old man named Zayne.
Zayne was cute, looked to be in his late teens/early 20s, and drove a nice car. He chatted me up and added me as a friend on Facebook later that night.
His profile on Facebook didn’t have his full name or any photos of him. It had pictures of his car and some funny photos, but that was it. After a few Facebook messages, he asked for my phone number.
Zayne liked talking on the phone and didn’t text much. He usually only texted me late at night to ask if I could talk, or during the day when I was at school. We were flirtatious, and it didn’t take long for him to start asking me about my sex life.
This went on for a few days, and then we met up for lunch. He told me how hot I was, and how much he liked me. He bought me lunch and let me drive his car.
A couple days after that, he sent a gift to my school. There was no note or name attached, just a bouquet of candy from Edible Arrangements. He called me that night and asked if I received his gift.
He came to my work and to my dance studio. He’d call me and tell me he missed me and wanted to see me, so we’d meet up in parking lots. He’d always bring me gifts. I’d complain about my parents; he would talk about his dream of moving to California.
“Maybe you could move there with me?” he said one day.
I never told my parents about Zayne. I didn’t see myself as a victim; it was rebellious and fun for me to be seeing an older man. And even though I knew sex between a 16-year-old and a 28-year-old was illegal, I never reported it.
Only one of my friends knew about Zayne; she expressed concern, but I told her it was no big deal. One time, when he visited my dance studio, my teacher made a comment that she “doesn’t think that guy is in high school.” She never reported it either, nor told my parents.
According to NCMEC, “children frequently do not reveal their victimization because they’re being manipulated by a trafficker who has physical and psychological control over them, or out of the shame and guilt that may exist as a result of their exploitation.”
Over half of all human trafficking in the US is sex trafficking involving children. Commercial sexual exploitation is a $99 billion industry. Traffickers are organized, well funded, and skilled at manipulation.
Manipulation takes many forms. According to Polaris, a nonprofit organization aimed at stopping human trafficking, there are a number of ways traffickers exert power and control over their victims. These include coercion and threats; intimidation; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; isolation; denying, blaming, and minimizing; physical abuse; using privilege; and economic abuse.
In older victims, manipulation is especially prevalent. Predators buy teenagers drugs and alcohol, buy them gifts, offer extravagant vacations, and promise them opportunities for a better life. For children growing up low-income or with unstable living situations, these things are extremely enticing.
In addition, there is emotional manipulation. Predators and traffickers prey on insecurities, and might say things such as, “if you really appreciate everything I’ve done for you, you would do this for me.” They might also threaten to tell their parents about the “bad things” the child has done.
The children then enter the sex trade because their traffickers tell them they must work to “pay back” what has been spent on them or to continue to receive affection, gifts, or drugs. In the US, the average age of a teen entering the sex trade is 12 to 14 years old.
The Epstein/Maxwell Case
Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell are household names now, due to their (alleged) rampant and well-funded child prostitution ring. The stories and reports that have come out since Epstein was arrested paint a detailed picture of how child sex trafficking happens.
“Traffickers are known to target youth shelters, group homes, and foster care facilities as locations for recruitment of vulnerable children.”
Traffickers and predators target children with vulnerabilities, like unstable living conditions, mental illness, drug and substance use, and previous sexual abuse or rape. 1 in 6 runaways are victims of sex trafficking, many of whom were in state custody at the time of their disappearance.
One of Epstein’s victims, Jane Doe #3, details in a deposition her history of abuse, poor parental relationships, and her time in foster care.
When asked about why she wasn’t living with her parents at age 11, Jane Doe #3 said it was because “some of the prior abuse which... led me to running away a lot and — and my family just thought it was best that I get out of the area and move somewhere else.” Her family sent her to California. She lived with someone for a year or two, but ran away from them also.
The abuse was from a man who was a close family friend, prior to age 11. Jane Doe only told her parents years later. It was never reported to the authorities. “It took me a long time to forgive my parents for sending me away. I didn’t feel like anybody understood me. So not until later in my life did I feel like I was able to talk to anyone about it,” she said.
“I didn’t feel like anybody understood me.”
- Jane Doe #3, sex trafficking victim
She eventually returned home and completed eighth grade while living with her parents. Later, she was sent to a group home because she continued to run away. The authorities were alerted after all of these runaway incidences, both in Florida and California. Jane Doe describes the group home as “sen[ding] you away to foster parents every night.”
She ran away from the group home, and at one point stayed with another man who abused her. He was later prosecuted by authorities. When her dad picked her up at the police station, knowing of the abuse, she asked him if she could “come home instead of going back to [the group home]. And he said my mom didn’t want me to come home. And I told him if he didn’t get me out within a week, I’d run away again and he’d never hear from me again.”
She was taken back to the group home, but later “ran away again and I called [my dad] up and I said, This is your final chance. And they came and picked me up and they let me live there.”
Jane Doe #3 was working at a resort when she was recruited to be sex trafficked. Her first time meeting Epstein, she was taken to him and told she “was going to be trained as a masseuse.” Ghislaine Maxwell then instructed her “to take off [her] clothes and to give oral sex to Jeffrey Epstein.” When she was later trafficked to other men, she was told to do for those men like she did for Epstein that first time, and “keep him happy.”
Epstein got and paid for an apartment for Jane Doe #3 to live in as part of recruiting her for sex trafficking. She left her parent’s house and moved into the apartment. That would have been the first time she had a secure living situation and lived on her own. She stayed at that apartment until Epstein took her to Thailand.
The story from this victim shows how manipulation, power, coercion, and financial incentives are used to recruit and traffic girls and boys. You can read another personal story from a survivor on how she went from foster care to being sex trafficked while attempting to return home to her biological aunt.
The majority of traffickers now recruit children online through social networking apps and sites and use the information obtained through these methods to relate to, and build trust with, children more quickly.
How to Protect Your Kids
The most important thing you can do to protect your children is to form an open, trusting relationship. Ask your kids about school, social media, and their friends, and take note if they avoid questions.
According to NCMEC “the majority of traffickers now recruit children online through social networking apps and sites and use the information obtained through these methods to relate to, and build trust with, children more quickly.”
“Help make your children more aware by explaining the dangers of sex trafficking and by challenging myths and misconceptions that glamorize commercial sex. This includes having conversations with them about online safety and how traffickers/pimps use social networking sites and apps to mask not only their appearance but also their true intentions while recruiting new victims.”
Know who your child interacts with online. Walk them through potential scenarios that may happen and how they should react. When you see or hear about potential grooming behaviors, address it immediately.
Social media profiles (yours or your child’s) should never include the child’s full name, birthday, grade, or where they go to school. At the very least, make all social media accounts private and closely monitor who they are friends with or who “follows” them on social media.
Keep in mind that predators often use photos of kids to make fake accounts and obtain access to private social media profiles. It’s important for you and your child to be positive that the person they friend or follow is who they say they are.
On most social media platforms, it is against their rules for a child under 13 years of age to have a profile. Personally, I don’t see any reason children this young need social media. The rule in our house is no social media until age 16.
As your child grows and matures, incrementally give them more freedom and access online. Always make sure a detailed conversation happens before they get access to chat features on online games, messaging apps, YouTube, or social media. Monitor the accounts often. If your child has their own computer or phone, there are a number of tracking apps that can help you monitor their usage, even if they delete their browsing history.
It may help kids to have “comebacks” or default responses to questions they may get asked online. If someone in an online video game asks for their name, they might freeze or just blurt out their name. Discussing a fake name they can use, or a response like “call me [generic nickname]” before they get asked the question is important. It empowers your child to take the right action and instills confidence that they can keep themselves safe.
As kids get older, the risk from predators is increasingly coercion — not force. So empowering your kids to say no, have responses when someone makes them feel uncomfortable, and a plan of who to notify and where to go if something happens is paramount.
Warning Signs to Watch For
NCMEC and Polaris provide lists of physical and behavioral signs that can be indicators of sex trafficking or sexual abuse.
Some of these “red flags” include:
- Significant change in behavior, including increased virtual behavior, or associates with a new group of friends
- Child lies about his or her age and identity
- Having large amounts of cash or pre-paid credit cards
- Having multiple cell phones and/or electronic devices
- Having notebooks or slips of paper containing phone numbers, dollar amounts, names, or addresses
- Presence of, or communication with, a controlling older boyfriend or girlfriend
More information about the warning signs can be found on NCMEC’s website as well as the Polaris Project.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made these vulnerable kids even more at risk. The number of crisis trafficking situations increased by more than 40% after shelter-in-place compared to before. In April 2020, “the situations in which people needed immediate emergency shelter nearly doubled” from pre-shelter-in-place periods.
Non-profits and government entities that provide services for at-risk youth have had to limit the number of cases they see. Already an under-served population, the pandemic has further hurt the kids who need access to these services to keep them off the street and keep them safe.
99.6% of human trafficking cases go undetected. Prepubescent children (girls and boys) are sought more than any other age group for sex trafficking, and are more likely to be traded between multiple offenders. As a victim is traded between multiple abusers, the seriousness of the crime increases (from sexually explicit photos/videos to penetration and sadism).
For the youngest victims (infant/toddler) the offender is much more likely to be a family member. If egregious sexual content (photos/videos) of the infant is distributed, it is much more likely the child is being sexually abused by multiple people.
If you see something — say something.
Visit NCMEC’s CyberTip Reporting page to file reports of abuse or child pornography.
If you think someone is being trafficked, call the National Hotline at 1 (888) 373–7888 or text them at 233733.
 National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children. US Department of Justice, 2002. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/196465.pdf
 10-Year Analysis of Attempted Abductions and Related Incidents. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2015. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/ncmec-analysis/attemptedabductions10yearanalysisjune2016.pdf
 CyberTipline Sextortion Fact Sheet. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2016. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/ncmec-analysis/sextortionfactsheet.pdf
 The Online Enticement of Children. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2017. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/ncmec-analysis/Online%20Enticement%20Pre-Travel1.pdf
 Child Sex Trafficking in America: A Guide for Parents & Guardians. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2020. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/CSTinAmerica_ParentsGuardians.pdf
 11 Facts About Human Trafficking. Various sources. https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-human-trafficking
 Trafficking in Persons Report. US Department of State, 2019. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf
 Missing Children, State Care, and Child Sex Trafficking. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/publications/missingchildrenstatecare.pdf
 Child Sex Trafficking Identification Resource. National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2020. https://www.missingkids.org/content/dam/missingkids/pdfs/CST%20Identification%20Resource.pdf
 Crisis in Human Trafficking During the Pandemic. Polaris, 2020. https://polarisproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Crisis-in-Human-Trafficking-During-the-Pandemic.pdf