Fortnite predator exploited US kids through Xbox. How to protect your children

The kids in this case were playing Fortnite, but the same thing is happening on Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, all social media, as well as in online games. — Dreamstime/TNS

School is out and your kids hop on the couch and settle in for an epic Fortnite battle on Xbox with their cyber friends.

But do you really know who they're playing with or who they're giving their names and pictures to?

One mother didn't know until it was too late.

She first grew suspicious when she saw missed calls from "Juan" on her 11-year-old son's cellphone.

She later answered a call and was alarmed to hear an adult's voice. He claimed he was Juan's father. But, her sons said they recognised the voice as their gaming friend.

On Tuesday, Juan Carlos Sandoval-Guerrero was indicted by a Richland grand jury of producing child pornography.

The 20-year-old Grandview man is accused of meeting at least four young boys through the popular video game Fortnite, then persuading them to send naked pictures and videos.

He was arrested Feb 6 after Richland detectives searched his home. He now faces 30 to 60 years in a federal prison if convicted as charged.

The kids in this case were playing Fortnite, but the same thing is happening on Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, all social media, as well as in online games.

Cerise Peck, a crime prevention specialist with the Richland Police Department, said predators are good manipulators and know that kids, being kids, will share information if they trust somebody.

"These people, this is their career. They spend their entire life hiding this and that's why they're successful with it," Peck told the Tri-City Herald. "They keep this identity from friends and family and co-workers. They are really good at tricking people."

Kids making kid choices

Richland police and the Southeast Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC) have been doing the "Screenshot Series" for three years.

The focus is on teaching parents about how predators talk with kids, app usage and cyberbullying.

"We're basically going through the whole gamut of online dangers," Peck said. "Kids are going to make kid choices... and we need to rely on the parents to educate themselves."

In addition to two community presentations each year, she also goes to youth groups, parent teacher organisations, churches, businesses and "any group that asks me to come speak".

She says one problem is parents are not involved with their kids' online play. They may not care for gaming and certain social apps or they just don't understand them. That gives would-be predators the opportunity to slowly and quietly work their way into a child's life.

Parents wouldn't send their child over to a friend's house without finding out more about who they are meeting and where they are going.

So, she said, they need to be just as vigilant with checking their online and cellphone interactions.

"If kids know that you know what goes on with Snapchat, then that's half the battle. But they know we're not paying attention and they just slide things by," said Peck. "Success is having kids know we're not stupid about their games and apps."

Friend from Xbox

In the case of Sandoval-Guerrero, he allegedly befriended two of the boys on Oct 9 and made his sexually explicit requests over the following three weeks.

The boys apparently shared one account on their Xbox console and took turns talking to "Juan" over the headset.

The older brother said he also talked with Juan on his phone via the TextNow application.

"(He) said that at first their conversations were about the game but that they later turned to 'pictures and stuff'," Detective Scott Runge wrote in court documents. The case was handled by ICAC.

The kid said he was asked to take pictures of his "boy area" and send them to Juan. Then, Juan replied in kind and told the boy, "Bro bro, now we can trust each other," Runge wrote.

The younger brother said he was asked to send naked pictures of himself in exchange for in-game purchases on Fortnite.

He claimed that Juan eventually started to video chat with him while his brother was sleeping, and during those calls the boy would be asked to do sexual acts, court documents said.

On Nov 1, their mother noticed the missed calls on the older boy's phone.

She answered the phone when Juan called again, put it on speaker and asked if he was Juan. The man said Juan was his son and gave his own age as 32.

The younger boy was nearby and confirmed that the voice belonged to the person they knew as Juan and was their friend from Xbox, documents said.

Detectives seized several electronic devices, including two smartphones when they searched Sandoval-Guerrero's home this month.

When questioned at the Grandview Police Department, he allegedly admitted telling the boys to send different pictures of themselves.

He initially told investigators all of the images had been deleted. Then he admitted storing them under his Snapchat account, court documents said.

The pictures and videos were found in a password-protected section called "For your eyes only".

There were images of two additional unknown boys, and Sandoval-Guerrero claimed he contacted them on Fortnite during November and December, documents said.

Prosecutors want locked up

Last week, Assistant US Attorney Alison Gregoire argued that Sandoval-Guerrero should remain locked up until trial because, in facing such a long prison term, he has reason to flee to his father's home in Mexico.

Gregoire said he poses a danger to not only the community, but the young victims in this case. In addition to persuading them to provide visual recordings of themselves, he asked the boys where they live and what schools they attend, she said.

The two identified victims lived about a half hour away from him.

Defense attorney Jeremy Sporn pointed out that his client has no prior criminal convictions, has lived in Eastern Washington since he was a baby, has a job and has a stable home with family members. There are no children in the home, he added.

Sporn also noted Sandoval-Guerrero is relatively young and has cooperated with investigators.

Magistrate Judge John T. Rodgers on Wednesday agreed to release him on a US$1,000 cash bond and with home confinement, like GPS monitoring. But that release was blocked with an immediate appeal from Gregoire.

Another hearing is set this month before Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. to decide if Sandoval-Guerrero must remain locked up or can be out until trial.

Parents talk with kids

Peck points out that gaming consoles like Xbox may have parental controls, but "at the end of the day you don't know exactly who is on the other end."

As painful as it may be for some parents, they need to understand how the game works and the lingo, and that means playing it. That is what she did with her children.

Successful players on Fortnite must be part of a team, or squad. If they don't have anyone at home to play with them or friends logged in online, the computer will match them up with strangers who are waiting to play.

That is where predators come in, says Peck.

Players communicate throughout the game, watching out for each other and discussing locations on the map. The purpose of the game is to kill everybody else and to be the last man standing.

Peck said once those kids put on the headset, they are in their own world and don't necessarily notice things going on around them.

That's when an online player can ask seemingly innocuous questions, like whether the player has a little sister or other personal details.

The young player will likely answer without thinking about it because they're focused on the game, she said.

Parents should be talking with their children about what they're telling their online friends. Some things are just a huge red flag, she said.

"(Parents need to let kids) know there are adults posing as kids with bad intentions. They should set some boundaries – what is safe to tell people and what relationships are OK," said Peck. "You should be checking your kids' devices and asking them who they are communicating with too."

"Making online friends through games is pretty risky for little people, and then taking it to text message is very risky," she said. – Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Washington)/Tribune News Service

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