How do parents keep their children safe online? These parents and GBI share their tips

By  | 

Tuesday, August 12, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock

Jennifer Coffey was missing for over 40 days before she was found safe in Aiken County. (Source: WRDW)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jennifer Coffey was located safe by investigators just hours before this story went to air and online. We are presenting it in its original format.

AUGUSTA, GA (WRDW/WAGT) – It was over 40 days of worry and lack of sleep, but Jennifer Coffey's family will never forget how she went missing.

Coffey believes she may have become a victim of human trafficking. They believe someone may have targeted the teen through a social media or a dating app.

Dating apps are for adult use only, but any child can easily gain access by just tapping agree. By entering these sites, they could be entering the dark world of human trafficking.

"I can't bring myself to think about all of the horrible things that could be happening to her,” Coffey’s mother said.

"I mean our 15-year-old child is out there somewhere,” Coffey said. “We don't know if she is dead or alive at this point. It's really a horrible feeling for a parent to have."

The girl disappeared more than a month ago after telling her mother she was taking out the trash.

"Using WiFi to communicate on the sites. There are many, many sites -- whether it be Facebook, Instagram, Plenty of Fish -- there is so many of them out there,” Coffey’s dad said.

It happened last year.

"We found out she was using a tablet that we didn't even know she had then,” Coffey’s dad said.

Jennifer ran away last year, too, after meeting an older man online. She was only 14 when she met the 40-year-old.

"I bought a cabinet and put a padlock on it to lock up the two laptops,” Coffey’s dad said. “We have two laptops in the house."

Now they think it's happened again. They found evidence of an unknown device signing onto the internet. They believe she got a hold of a cell phone and was using it to chat with strangers before she ran away.

That’s where GBI Special Agent Charles Kicklighter comes in.

“That's a prime example of how the sex trafficking can start,” Kicklighter said. “They can meet someone, they can convince them, lure them to run away."

Kicklighter spends most of his day behind a screen hunting down predators.

“Since Backpage and Craigslist shut down their personals [sections], the trafficking and prostitution has moved to dating apps and social networking sites, and teens live on these sites,” Kicklighter said.

Like Kik, a popular messaging app with teens, or Whisper, which allows people to remain anonymous and share secrets. There's also Tindr, Yellow, Grindr, and Instagram. There's even an app that looks like a calculator where people can hide pictures and texts messages on their phone. In Coffey’s case, it was Plenty of Fish.

“The only age verification is a yes or a no answer, and that's it,” Kicklighter said.

Coffey’s parents don't know which app or if any may have led her to possibly meeting someone online this time. The two feel extremely and completely helpless at this point.

Just two weeks after Coffey disappeared, investigators found another teen after they say she met an Augusta man online. They say Derek Nelson met her to hook up, but threw her out of his car when they closed in on him. She was just 13.

"These guys befriend them, buy them stuff, lure them out with money phones,” Kicklighter said.

There are apps that parents can use to track their kids in real life and online like life 360, MamaBear, and Family Orbit, but that only helps when the parent knows about a device.

What it boils down to, according to Kicklighter, is communication.

“You can lock down your phone, you can be very strict, not let them out of the house except to go to school, but if they're going to do something they're going to do it,” Kicklighter said. “The main thing is to have good communication, talk to them about apps, know their passwords, know who they're communicating with."

"You see about these things on TV,” Coffey’s mother said. “You hear about these types of things, but you never really think it’s going to happen to you and your family."

Two great resources for parents is the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. They have video you can show your children to warn them about the dangers online. There's also info there for parents on warning signs and what to do if your child goes missing.