Tampa, Florida - Parents, we know you're on the lookout for sexual predators who want to prey on your children, but many of you maynot be aware some of those predators have found a new place to play: your child's favorite video game console.
In the world of online gaming, your son or daughter may play the part of a good guy or a bad guy.In reality, there are real "bad guys" online who could be talking to your children through video games.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Detective Christopher Heaverin says parents who leave their children alone in this gaming world don't realize they're communicating with real people.
Heaverin explains, "They know when your child gets off of school, they know what time they play games, because they'll start tracking them."
Parents should be aware that an Xbox or PlayStation is no different than talking to strangers on the Internet, and a lot of predators start off there.
Experts say predators often team up with children in games, giving them links and hints in the gaming world as a trust building technique.
Teens like 13-year-old Kyle Burks say part of the appeal of playing online is competing with outsiders.
"If you go into a match and then you talk to people, you can add them as your friend and play with them later," says Burks.
Still, Kyle admits he knows that he has to be careful of some strangers."They go on Xbox and mess with people."
Gamers call them "trolls," people who send inappropriate pictures and messages through the gaming system.
But it's not always easy to spot the "trolls," or worse, predators.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Internet Predator Unit detectives explain that they often see adults posing as children, like in the case of an 11-year-old Tampa boy.He was using his Xbox, playing online against someone he thought was a teenager, but then the other player made a strange request: he wanted the 11-year-old to send him nude pictures.
Master Detective Peggy Grow explained, "It started out on an Xbox and moved to Facebook and a cell phone, and the inappropriate images were done via the cell phone."
That's when the 11-year-old's older brother stumbled on the pictures and showed them to their mom.The mom thensent some text messages to the man who had befriended her son and began asking some questions.
His answers disturbed her, and shecontacted Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
They soon learned the person asking for those nude pictures wasn't a teenager.The man the child was playing games with was 21-year-old Scott Gibbons of Iowa.
Turns out, mom had good reason to worry: Gibbons was already on probation at the time for inappropriate contact with a child.
Federal prosecutors call Gibbons a "predator of young boys."
In May, a judge sentenced Gibbons to 14 years in prison.
Detective Heaverin says this case should be a wake-up call for local parents. "If the child goes 'I need to be on the computer at 6 o' clock' ask why. It could be that this person on the other end says 'I want you back on at 6 o' clock.'"
Heaverin wants parents to understand that predators will spend an enormous amount of time building trust, just like Gibbons, and they may use the gaming systems as a way to gain an advantage.
"Because that is part of the hunt," he says. "'Am I going to get them?'"
Experts suggest using a tracking program on your child's computer and cell phones.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's offers software to help you monitor your child's activities online. For more information about how to get a free CD, call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office 813-247-8000.