FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Disturbing news headlines often offer a glimpse of the dark reality in communities all across the nation. Take this one from our website, for example: “Missing teen girl with man wanted by police.”
That missing teen is one of many others who find themselves in danger every year.
“Self-harm, and lots of mental health stuff to deal with. But, I’m so happy to report that she is healing so well,” says Tessa Capel, who lived through a nightmare when a family member became a victim of sexual assault and cybercrimes.
“I was going through her phone and found that men, tons and tons of men had been asking her to have sex with her,” she says.
The contact made by predators was through a seemingly innocent fashion app.
“The connection is a few keystrokes away and your child is now locked into something,” says Capel.
Capel now volunteers for the Fayetteville-based National Child Protection Task Force.
Founded by Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Metcalf, it offers law enforcement extra tools and expertise to find online predators.
“We have extremely high-level experts that are willing to jump on any case anywhere,” says Metcalf.
The nonprofit is run solely by volunteers with law enforcement and technology backgrounds.
What are known as ‘white hat hackers’ help track predators and recover missing children.
“We try to use a lot of the tools we learn from criminals, a lot of their trick we reverse on them,” he says.
It gives law enforcement an extra boost in solving the many child abduction, exploitation, and trafficking cases.
“In the range of 300 to 400 cases,” says Matthew Robinson, a volunteer with the task force. He is a data analyst and has been with NCPTF since its inception.
“As technology experts, we’re used to going out and getting that information and seeing things that law enforcement may not see,” says Robinson.
Predators easily target children on popular apps like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, where everyone can be friends with anyone and not think much of it.
“You look out there and 100-percent of children who are online have been contacted by predators,” says Robinson.
He can’t talk specifics and reveal trade secrets but he can say patterns and even the smallest amount of data can lead to a path of answers.
“What we’re doing is completely legal. We’re not spying on people or anything but with an investigation people may say ‘hey, I have this phone number’ and we see that it called this person recently, so we can go in and say ‘okay, this phone number belongs to this person’ and then we can start looking up information that’s publicly available,” he explains.
Metcalf found dozens of breaches into my accounts through apps using only my email and phone number.
“When I ran your two pieces of information, there was a substantial amount of data that’s out there,” says Metcalf.
It’s a scary realization for parents of just how easily information can be obtained. Also, a visualization of the dedicated work done by people in our communities to fight for our kid’s safety
“This thing has been growing more than I can control I’ve been fortunate to get some really good people on board,” says Metcalf.
Metcalf believes a strong relationship between parents and their children is key in protecting them from online predators. He’s created a parenting division within the task force that’s partly taught by Capel using her own experience.
“We in the task force are taking the power back to the victim and we’re stopping that power that the predators are given,” says Capel.
Capel and the rest of the volunteers remain committed to reaching every parent and child.
“Us parents have the control to put a stop to these predators targeting our children. That’s opening conversations. These conversations are not easy. I had to really check myself .”
In an effort to ensure our children don’t end up victims in a headline.