The virtual world your kid constructed in Fortnite may have an unseen threat built in — sexual predators reaching out through the chat box.

Just before the holiday season, when billions of dollars will be spent on games, authorities are on high alert as online abuse — such as adults looking to exploit vulnerable teens for sex or money — appears to be worsening. Reports of abuse are becoming alarmingly frequent, with some criminals hurting thousands of victims, according to a New York Times report

Sexual predators often use multiplayer video games, social media and chat apps as an easy way into the lives of children, duping them into sharing explicit images and information and then blackmailing them for more graphic material or money. 

Gaming companies appear to be making “only tepid efforts” as problem spirals out of control, the Times said, as the law provides little incentive to companies, which aren’t always held responsible for illegal content. 

The tech industry identified 45 million photos and videos flagged as sexual abuse material last year, the newspaper said in an earlier report. Tech companies have struggled inconsistently for years to figure out ways to make the Internet safe while allowing teens to enjoy being online.

Instagram, for instance, just last week began to require people enter birthdates when signing up, and gave users the ability to block messages from people they don’t follow. Sony’s PlayStation enables users to block other players and has a “family management” tool to prevent children from players age-inappropriate games.

Automated systems are also used by gaming companies to try to detect behaviors and language that might indicate a predator. Roblox, for instance, uses software designed to block explicit language and ensure that all avatars are wearing appropriate attire.

A record $4.36 billion was spent on video games over the Black Friday to Cyber Monday weekend this year, Neilsen estimated.  Virtually every boy — 97% — ages 13 to 17 plays online games, according to a Pew Research Center survey. More than four out of every five girls in that age group also play.

Unfortunately, every child who goes online may become a victim, according to the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Research from various countries shows that children who become online victims shared “no apparent negative prior life circumstances” and were randomly targeted, according to a 2017 report from the center. There was no “typical” victim, though the children were mainly ages 13 to 15, the report said.

And there seems to be no pattern for the perpetrators, either, according to the New York Times. A series of stings by authorities in New Jersey netted of arrests of people from all walks of life, including a police officer, a nurse, and a mechanic, the newspaper said.

  • The FBI in September rolled out a “Stop Sextortion” poster campaign in schools to make teens more aware of the dangers of going online. The FBI notes that a crime has been committed as soon as a young person is asked for a single graphic image.