SAN ANTONIO - As we head into the summer months, its estimated that half of the children in the United States are online gaming.
Most are making online friends they've never met before.
This month, through our partnership with Ransomed Life and their "No Child Sold" campaign, we are taking a closer look at how to keep kids safe, and parents beware, as we see that traffickers are using gaming more than ever to gain the trust of young victims.
There are thousands of gaming apps online, making it nearly impossible to know exactly where your children are playing on their phones, tablets or gaming devices. Games like Fortnite, Minecraft or even just Xbox may seem harmless, but have proven to be a tool for criminals lurking behind the screen.
Kristen Storey thought her 11-year-old daughter Brooke was safe playing a game called "Roadblocks," which has a disclaimer for users under 13. That is until she noticed Brooke acting secretive and spending long hours on her phone late at night.
"There were several grown men wanting to speak to her, calling her beautiful and they wanted to see her," Kristen said. "Many of these screens names were very sexual in nature referring to male body parts."
Kristen put parental locks on Brooke's phone, but several months later, she found that Brooke had been chatting with another man, this time through Xbox.
"They were long messages, descriptive messages. She was telling him about her life," Kristen said. "He would degrade her to the point where she would say she didn’t want to live anymore."
And it doesn't just happen to girls.
Predators posing as teenage girls asking for compromising photos or just someone looking for a friend have also been targeting boys.
In 2019, seven Florida men were arrested for the abduction and sexual abuse of two teenage boys after they met on games like Fortnite and Minecraft, luring them into private conversations in a chat room called discord.
Compromising photos were exchanged and alluring promises were made.
Nicole Evangelista talks about the dangers of gaming for San Antonio non-profit Ransomed Life, educating children, parents and gamers about the dangers through their "Game Over" presentation.
"Games are just one type of tool traffickers use to gain the trust of their victim," said Evangelista "That’s a key thing they’re not using the game itself to exploit the victim. What they are trying to do, through the game, is gain the trust of the victim."
And if a child starts showing behavioral signs that they are hiding something, it may be time to look through their phone - a move Kristen says likely saved her daughter's life.
"Children will be one step ahead of you every time," Kristen said. "I’m going to keep her safe in every way possible it may seem over bearing, but I’m going to keep her alive that way."
Experts say if you do think you or your child may have been a target of a trafficker, it's important to not erase any of the information on your computer or phone. Go straight to the police. Chances are you may not be their only victim, and your courage could help others.
If you would like to learn more about the dangers of gaming, Ransomed Life will be giving a FREE "Game Over" presentation at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
CLICK HERE to register for the presentation.