Summer is a great time for fun and relaxation, but it can quickly turn to boredom and bad decisions, especially when it comes to online activities.
Cyberstalking, blackmail scams, "catfishing" and other predatory cybercrimes are common year-round, but during summer months when children are out of school and days are longer, people tend to let down their guard and do things they might not otherwise do.
School-age children especially miss the physical social contact they have when school is in session, and turn to electronic or online socialization to fill the void.
Robinson Police Officer Gabe Lowrance said a lot of it has to do with instant access through electronic devices like cell phones or tablets.
"I grew up with the computer on the table, telephone on the wall and video games plugged into the television," Lowrance said. "Now you have everything on one device, a cellphone, in your pocket. "
Lowrance said local police don't get a lot of cybercrime reported, and when they do there is often not a lot they can do, but that does not mean they can't help in recognizing a scam or scaring off predators.
"Online predators are always looking for easy targets, but if you push back or question them they often move on," Lowrance said.
For most of us catfishing means a night of baiting and hooking blue channels or yellow-belly bullheads from the river or a pond, but the modern cyber version involves pretending to be someone else to bait and hook an unsuspecting person.
A popular television show of the same name featured on MTV has highlighted how regular people and celebrities alike have been duped or taken advantage of through catfishing.
The game is simple: a person makes contact with another through social media, email or a chat room app. They, pretending to be someone they are not, cast bait by saying or writing the type of things a person likes or wants to hear to catch their attention. Once they have their attention, they try to engage them in conversations, enticing them to do things they might otherwise never do.
Using their fake online identity the catfisher will then try to scam victims for money, romance or physical harm. Lowrance said with a little information, scammers can create a large profile of their victim very quickly.
"You can Google someone with just a little information and find out a lot about them, specifically their home address," Lowrance said.
Armed with information, scammers and catfishers can manipulate unsuspecting victims. Blackmailers looking for money might ask for inappropriate photos or movies, then request money or they will put it on the internet for all to see, or send it to a spouse, parent or other family members. Others may share sob stories to get money, to "help them out," or if they are from far away to help them travel. Catfishers are very good at manipulating individuals who become "blinded by love."
Some signs you are being catfished include being asked for money. It may sound obvious, but if the online friend or romantic interest whom you have never met asks you to send money or provide your bank information, you are being catfished.
If they cannot meet in person, stringing you along or agreeing to a meeting only to have an "emergency" or medical issue the day of the meet is a sign. Their geographical location can also be a tip. If they live overseas or across the country, or are working far away and traveling a lot, that could be a sign.
Claiming not to be able to video chat can also be a sign. Someone who is tech savvy enough to use apps to contact with you should also be able to video chat. If not, they are probably hiding their identity. Some people who catfish take on the online persona of a model or successful businessperson, making them seem more trustworthy or desirable.
Being persistent about wanting inappropriate pictures, or money is always a sign.
Finally if they seems to good to be true, it probably is.
For parents of young children who have access to social media apps, Lowrance recommends keeping a close eye on who they are talking with, what they are saying or sharing, and what apps they are using.
Facebook has transitioned from the college-age students it was created for to a more mature general public. Young people are always looking for new or unique sites where their nosy aunt is not commenting on their every post. So keeping up with what apps are on your child's devices is important. Predators often hide in the dark places.
"If someone wants to connect with you see who their friends are or if you have mutual friends, and ask you friends about them," recommends Lowrance.
He also recommends using Google to look up phone numbers, names, people or pictures or suspicious contacts.
"Don't be afraid to report suspicious contacts," Lowrance said. "Facebook, Instagram and other apps are good about responding to complaints or proof of sexual predators online."
While catching catfishers or online scammers is extremely difficult, the Robinson Police and other police agencies encourage individuals to report cyber crimes or persistent inappropriate or suspicious contacts. Embarrassment or shame often prevents many of these types of crimes from being reported, but many police departments have computer programs or access to information that can help or protect adults, young adults and children from being taken advantage of.