We always warn our kids about stranger danger when we're out and about.
But what about the virtual world?
Do you really know who's playing with your children?
Gaming consoles are so popular right now, but how often are kids playing online with no idea who they’re really connected with on the other end?
Derek Lowe, 19, enjoys spending his down time playing games on Xbox.
In the first-person combat world of real-time play with other gamers, it is second nature to take out the bad guys.
But the line between real and play, as well as good and bad, can easily be blurred.
“One of my friends invited this guy to our party and he was just saying some stuff to the younger kids I didn't enjoy hearing,” Lowe said.
He was playing on Xbox around dinnertime a few weeks ago when something just seemed off with one of the players talking to everyone else on headset.
“He started asking them where they lived, their address, I was like, ‘dude, you don't ask little kids where they live,'” Lowe said.
Lowe said that player was using a voice changer to sound like a kid.
[SPECIAL SECTION: Power of 2 | Empowering you to be safe]
He said he was 10 and kept asking the other kids if they would want to come to his house to play with his new equipment.
“He was just saying, ‘I have all the new systems, I have all the new games. You should come over and check it all out. It's kind of cool,'” Lowe said.
Sgt. Scott Waite of the Glendale Police Department says parents have to be extra vigilant about screen time.
"These predators aren't lurking in dark corners. Now they are just using fake profiles and contacting these kids right on main forums," Waite said.
“We have hit a whole new world of how people are getting to our children without us ever knowing about it,” Waite said.
Beth Pickering, a mother in Mesa, couldn't believe it when Lowe told her what happened.
"We make our kids aware of stranger danger out in public. On the video game, things aren't real and kids kind of don't grasp the reality when they play so much. They don't think of the game as real or think of it in the real-world implications," Pickering said.
Lowe said he called out that player and warned the other kids they were playing with not to talk to him.
“I was like, ‘you're not 10? Tell me your real age,’ and he wouldn't tell me,” Lowe said.
“I called him a pedophile. I'm like, ‘get off Xbox! You're a pedophile,'" Lowe said.
Before Lowe could report that suspicious player to Microsoft, that player, beat him to the punch and reported him for name calling.
“They said I was banned for violating the user agreements on inappropriate communications,” Lowe said.
“No 10-year-old kid would do that. It clearly struck a nerve when he called him a pedophile,” Pickering said.
She and Lowe both tried to talk with a Microsoft representative to report their concern for other kids.
“And I couldn't believe the runaround that I got!” Pickering said.
Microsoft doesn't have any sort of 24-hour safety hotline you can call in an emergency.
Your only option is to email or click through the console to report a player.
"I reported it and they didn't. They didn't do anything about it," Lowe said.
He got an email that Microsoft enforcement would investigate and get back to him in 24 hours.
They never did.
“What if this guy gets some kid and three days later, that kid's dead? Do you want that on your conscience? Let me take this further, let me talk to somebody, make a report, get somebody to at least look into this just so that what I’m saying, the dramatic, doesn't become reality,” Pickering said.
“'Have a nice day ma'am.’ I mean, they just couldn't get me off the phone fast enough,” Pickering said.
So we tried calling.
We got the same robo-drill and automated runaround.
After several calls, hang ups and more than half an hour, we finally got through to a real person who confirmed we could not be transferred to a representative, talk to a supervisor or get a phone number to report inappropriate or suspicious behavior in the live play gaming.
We were told to email Microsoft enforcement and only after they reviewed our claim would they then decide whether to initiate a callback.
The Microsoft Xbox team sent us a statement saying:
"We take our responsibility of providing a safe online experience very seriously. Advanced parental controls empower adults to choose the content, communication and sharing settings that are right for their families. If members have concerns, we encourage them to report via our online reporting platform. Our Xbox Live Policy and Enforcement Team investigates all reports received and takes any appropriate action."
Bottom line, be well aware your kid could be playing and chatting with an adult.
"What the picture on the screen is may not be the person typing and talking to you. So it really is scary as a parent these people are hiding right out there in the open,” Waite said.
Waite says it's OK to trust your kids with technology, but it's still your job to protect them.
"They make amazing filters, they make amazing ways you can keep track of your kids. You can even see their text messages coming in before they even see them. You would like to think it's another teenage kid just having a good time, but you don't know."
“They don't realize the risk of giving out information. They just assume this is a game, that they're not going to be able to find me,” Lowe said.
“I feel like a lot of parents use Xbox almost as a babysitter,” Lowe said.
He and Pickering hope this will be a wake-up call for families and companies like Microsoft to do more to make sure kids are safe from the real bad guys in this virtual world.
“Hey, stranger danger can be on our game too!” Pickering said.
The FBI runs the regional task force on internet crimes against children and says if you come across any suspicious behavior, you can and should report it to your local police or the Phoenix field office of the FBI at 623-466-1999, or online through https://tips.fbi.gov/
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