ONLY ON 9: How a local police department is taking down online sex predators

CONCORD, N.C. — Online predators targeting young children in our area -- it’s a terrifying reality kids are facing and something every parent needs to pay attention to.

The Concord Police Department has launched a new effort to catch people who are looking for teenage girls online for sex, and only Channel 9′s Allison Latos was there as the officers arrested one of those suspects.

The department set up fake teen profiles and said predators swooped in fast -- one even asked to meet within 12 minutes of the first message.

The threats are real and constant.

On Sunday, a 14-year-old girl from Davidson County was returned home safe after police said she was abducted by 38-year-old William Ice and taken to Arkansas. The two met online.

Investigators said Ice was in contact with 13 teenagers in North Carolina at the time.

Two days later, deputies in Catawba County issued a warning that some local students have been contacted by strangers on their school computers.

The team with Concord police is going online to keep anything like those situations from happening again.

‘We want to take these guys off the streets’

31-year-old Joshua Cress is a Concord electrician who served time in prison as recently as last year for possession of stolen goods. Officers said he drove to a dog park on Weddington Road Wednesday, intending to have sex with a 15-year-old girl.

As officers took him away in handcuffs, Allison Latos asked Cress why he came to the park and if he was trying to meet a teenage girl. Cress denied coming to meet a girl and said police were trying to set him up, but investigators said evidence in his car shows he came prepared.

His arrest is one of 11 that Concord police have made in just three weeks through a new team working undercover online to catch sexual predators.

“I’m glad they’re doing that because these guys are slick,” resident Linda Banks said. “They know just what to say to seduce a little 15-year-old girl.”

Capt. John Tierney said the suspects are between 30 and 69 years old. He said some of the suspects are unemployed but 30-year-old Stratto Similton is a roofer from Kannapolis and 36-year-old Bryan Austin works at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

“We want to take these guys off the streets,” Tierney said.

According to police, six of the suspects drove from places like Charlotte, Monroe and Salisbury to public places with the intention of meeting a 15-year-old girl.

Tierney told Channel 9 the underage girl that the suspects thought they were messaging was really a Concord detective.

Within three weeks, the police department’s fake teen profiles have been bombarded by men wanting to meet up. Some brought drugs, flowers and products they intended to use during the meetings.

“Scary. That is very scary and underhanded,” resident Kieva Skinner said.

Even if the suspects don’t show up for a meeting, Concord police are still charging them with solicitation. The six men who did show up will face even tougher charges.

How can you protect your child from online predators?

Officers are doing their best to catch predators targeting young children, but they need parents to take action as well.

Here are a few tips from the FBI:

  • Discuss Internet safety with children of all ages when they engage in online activity.
  • Review and approve games and apps before they are downloaded.
  • Make sure privacy settings are set to the strictest level possible for online gaming systems and electronic devices.
  • Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep electronic devices in an open, common room of the house.
  • Check your children’s profiles and what they post online.
  • Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the Internet.
  • Make sure children know that anyone who asks a child to engage in sexually explicit activity online should be reported to a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult and law enforcement.
  • Remember that victims should not be afraid to tell law enforcement if they are being sexually exploited. It is not a crime for a child to send sexually explicit images to someone if they are compelled or coerced to do so.

There’s another app that predators are using to target your child. The two pictures below from “Youth Diversion” are the same person. It’s an adult using a filter to look younger and talk to kids.

Youth Diversion says parents should talk to their kids about apps like this, so they don’t trust everyone online.

There are so many apps out there to keep up with but, as a parent, you simply have to.

Here are few popular apps Action 9′s Jason Stoogenke wants you to know about:

  • Yubo: It markets itself as a way to chat and livestream with new friends but predators can easily pose as teens. Some even call it “Tinder for Teens.”
  • Snapchat: It sends photos and videos that eventually disappear, but they really don’t because they can be saved through screenshots.
  • YOLO: It lets users communicate through Snapchat anonymously, which can lead to all sorts of bad behavior.
  • TikTok: It’s the young person’s app of choice right now but it automatically sets accounts to public, giving strangers full access to your kids.

Here are three of the most popular apps parents can use to monitor and protect their kids online:

  • Bark
  • Qustodio
  • Net Nanny

All three apps cost money but can be crucial in protecting your child from predators online.