FOSTORIA, Ohio — On Tuesday, the Fostoria Police Department announced the end of a successful 10-month online sting.
An undercover officer, posing as a child in online chat rooms, arrested 15 people for allegedly attempting sex crimes against children during the sting operation.
Many have already been convicted and sentenced, but some are still awaiting trial.
To learn more about the potential dangers in online spaces, WTOL 11 spoke to Amy LaGesse, a University of Toledo sex trafficking researcher. LaGesse said predators will take advantage of online spaces like video games and social media in the most unassuming of ways, by pretending to be kids, and sending friendly messages to minors in the hopes of luring them in.
LaGesse laid out some of the typical aspects of grooming: building up a relationship that starts friendly but evolves into sexual discussions, asking for lewd photographs or even trying to meet up for sex.
As smartphones and tablets have become more commonplace, LaGesse said online predators are becoming a bigger issue every year and said only a percentage of them are caught.
LaGesse warned that any online platform, from Facebook to Snapchat, can be a potential space for these kinds of interactions to happen. But, she said platforms like Photovault, Whisper, AskFM and Show Me in particular have all made it onto a government list of dangerous apps.
LaGesse said in situations where a child is being groomed, there are warning signs that parents can look out for.
"You're going to see a personality change," LaGesse said. "You're going to see them want to be on the computer constantly. They don't want to see their friends, they don't want to play basketball or hang out like they used to, their behaviors will change significantly because they'll just want to interact with this person who they think cares for them and wants to help them out in their life."
WTOL 11 also spoke to David Frattare, the commander of the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, an organization that trained the officer in the Fostoria Police Department.
Frattare said in order to avoid these issues altogether, parents need to regularly check their children's social media, even recommending they follow their children on social media apps to keep an eye on their interactions.
He said far too many cases he's seen have started from parents who gave their kids a phone without ever checking what they were up to.