The Practicing Parent: Digital kidnapping

Practicing Parent: Digital kidnapping

This story from ABC 7 partner Fox 25's Wendy Suares:

A new warning for parents you need to hear before you post the next picture of your child online. That photo could be swiped by strangers and used for a disturbing fetish.

It's called "baby role play," and your child might already be a victim without you even knowing it.

When she's not busy with 2 and half year old twins, Silas and Andley, Noble mom Hayley Clyburn is sharing the experience on her blog, Yours Twincerely. The twins' lives from birth are captured in photos that Clyburn used to share without thinking twice.

Clyburn said, "I'm a little more leery about what I put online, and I choose to filter through that."

Clyburn is a victim of digital kidnapping. "That's the picture that always gets used," she said, pointing out a professional photo taken of her newborn twins.

The photo popped up on at least 5 other websites, including a social media site where a stranger appears to claim the twins are hers.

And that's just all I know about," she said. "So imagine what I don't know about."

Kevin Deshazo with Fieldhouse Media said, "It's becoming a pretty serious issue."

Deshazo, a social media expert, explained how digital kidnapping is taking on a new form. You can see it for yourself by searching on Instagram for #babyrp or #adoptionrp. You'll find countless anonymous strangers fantasizing about having or adopting children. The pictures they post are taken from your social media feeds.

"They're saving that picture onto their device, and then uploading it as if it's their kid, creating a new name, a new story, a completely new life for this kid," said Deshazo.

We saw various strangers describe how they'd take care of the child, as the digital kidnapper responds back, pretending to the be the child.

Commenters ask if they can meet the child. Then they continue the fantasy in private messages.

"Sometimes it crosses the line into really creepy things, when you're talking about breastfeeding. and nudity stuff," said Deshazo. "It's just really uncomfortable."

Playing pretend with other people's photos isn't illegal. But it does violate terms of most social networks.

"That can be a little creepy to the parent of that child," said Tamara Walker, who runs the child safety site, MomRN.

Who's doing this? Walker says it's usually harmless teenage girls. But real danger comes if your child's information gets into the wrong hands, like those of a child predator.

"There's also the possibility that they may take it further and try to track that child down and try to make contact," said Walker.

Walker and Deshazo offer several tips for parents. First, turn off all location settings on your phone. And check the privacy setttings on your social media accounts. but remember nothing online is 100 percent private. "Assume that if you post it online, it's going to be found," said Walker.

You might also consider watermarking your photos. Free apps that let you do that. And you can upload any supspecting image into a Google reverse image search. That's how Clyburn discovered the sites using her stolen photo.

Keep in mind, digital kidnappers tend to prefer higher quality pictures, solely of the child looking straight into the camera. And finally, posting child nudity, no matter how innocent, is always a bad idea.

This new world of online sharing means an entire generation of kids will grow up to have a life-long online presence that's been created for them without their consent.

Deshazo said, "When they're 18, 'Well thanks Mom and Dad. You've given me this entire history that I never gave you permission to do.' What are they going to be comfortable with? And it's a new thing to deal with."

It's a new dilemma for parents like Clyburn who now post more carefully, more aware of who might be looking at her twins' photos.

"It's creepy, because it's not up to them either," Clyburn said. "They have no say in it. They don't know about it. They can't say anything about it. It's up to me to protect them."

Clyburn reached out to all the sites she found were using her photo, and all but one has taken it down.

We reached out to Instagram for comment. They haven't responded to our request, but they did put out a statement recently regarding baby role play, saying, "Once a parent or guardian reports it to us, we work quickly to remove it."

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