Alabama teens lured offline, 1 still missing
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - A Crenshaw County couple is desperate for clues in the search for their teenage daughter who met someone on a popular app and vanished.
Sadly, other Alabama families know what they're going through. In recent months, several teens went missing after meeting up with strangers they connected with on social media.
Most of the girls have been located, but Myra "Alissia" Freeman, 18, hasn't been seen or heard from in five months after leaving her house in Highland Home.
Her parents have tried everything they can think of to find her. They started a Facebook page and travel to cities where there are possible sightings of her, posting fliers and canvassing the area. They teamed up with a national organization in the hopes of uncovering a break in the case.
"It's never ending. It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," said Chris Metcalf, Alissia's stepfather.
Local, state and federal agencies are involved in the search for Alissia. The FBI is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to her safe return. With local donations, the reward is up to $13,500.
In December, she said she was going to take out the trash and then disappeared from her family's home in the Magnolia Shores community.
"She went out, and she didn't come back in. We went looking for her, and our neighbor said she saw her walking down the road. We called the police, and we've been looking for her and so far, we haven't found anything," her mother, Vickie Metcalf, said.
Her parents say the homeschooled teen left with someone she met on a chat app. They asked that the name of the app not be released so as not to interfere with the investigation, but explained how it works.
"You can make free calls and texts, but you need to be connected to Wi-Fi. Everything on there is anonymous. You could be a 30-year-old man and your age on there could show you're 17. It's dangerous," Chris Metcalf explained. "You can reset your number and put in any area code."
Law enforcement is still working to find out who Alissa was talking to. The Metcalfs have not had any contact with her and fear she met someone who was not who they said they were.
Their ordeal is something Lisa Bridges has also been through. Her 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, disappeared from their Brewton home in February with someone she met on Facebook, the only form of social media she was allowed to have.
The family woke up and the front door to their house was open, and Brooke was gone.
"This boy lied, and that's how she got taken from my home," Lisa said in an exclusive interview.
Brooke, who is also homeschooled, was new to the area and trying to make friends. The person she was talking to said he was from Brewton and attended T.R. Miller High School in town.
Lisa Bridges checks her kids' phones and computers whenever she wants and controls the family cell phone plan. Her children can't download apps, and Lisa gets a list of calls and texts and any pictures they send. She admits the predator who targeted Brooke "slipped by."
"I agreed to allow her to add him as a friend on Facebook. He had pictures from the football games. But he was not from T.R. Miller or Brewton. He was not the age he said he was," Lisa Bridges said. "I've always had control, but somehow I missed it."
Brooke was gone for 53 days before she was able to reach out for help. She was located near Atlanta. Her mother declined to discuss specifics about what happened. Calls to the Brewton police chief and FBI were not returned.
"She was able to get contact back with us through Facebook. She's going through night terrors. Things happened to her that should not have happened to anybody," Lisa Bridges said.
Now, the teen doesn't have a phone and is not using Facebook.
"Watch what your children are doing," her mother warned.
Social media also played a role in the disappearance of 14-year-old Kiara Neal from Tallassee who left school with a 30-year-old man in March and ended up being located weeks later in Brewton.
Two years ago, a 14-year-old Wetumpka teen was reunited with her family after a Texas man she met on social media hitchhiked to Alabama and tried to take her out of town. The two ended up being spotted walking along U.S. Highway 231.
"We have seen more and more of this. So many of these girls are between 12 and 15, and they are very vulnerable and all of a sudden, someone is paying attention to them. They leave and they think it's innocent, and they end up in a lot of trouble," said Jannah Bailey, executive director of Child Protect, a non-profit organization in Montgomery that supports victims of child abuse.
Dr. Jennie Noll, an expert on kids and social media and its dangers, is the director of Penn State University's Network on Child Protection and Well-Being.
Her research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, tracks the internet and social media behaviors of nearly 500 girls between the ages of 12-15 on specially engineered laptops and mobile devices. Face-to-face interviews are also part of the five-year study.
The findings indicate that 45 percent of the teens say they've met someone offline that they initially met online. Of that, 5 percent said something went wrong during the encounter, including misrepresentation, violence, rape or attempted rape.
The study is also looking at how provocative the girls are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which can attract the attention of sex traffickers.
Cyber investigator Mike Trotter works for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's Fusion Center, the state's intelligence hub. He says anytime a child disappears, there's a real risk that they can become involved in human trafficking.
"We have seen an uptick in confirmed human trafficking cases," Trotter said. "They could enter into a human trafficking scheme where they are moved across state lines and across the country to work in various sex trades."
Within the Fusion Center is the Alabama Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is responsible for issuing alerts to the public.
When ALEA receives information regarding a missing child, they make a determination based on the facts and circumstances of the case as to what kind of alert should be issued.
After the alert is pushed out, they assist in coordinating any type of state resources or response that may be needed, like the Aviation Unit or the State Bureau of Investigation.
"We've had several missing children or runaways within the past few months and after they've been located, it seems that they ran away with people they met online," Trotter said. "Anytime they have a device, it's just like having a predator in their bedroom with them. You're inviting the outside world into your house to communicate, a lot of times, in an unmonitored, unrestrained fashion."
We went to Pensacola to meet with Brad Dennis, national search director for the KlaasKids National Search Center for Missing Children. They travel around the country running searches and managing search efforts for missing children. They've helped thousands of families.
The organization assisted in the search for Brooke Bridges. They're also involved in the search for Alissia Freeman.
"It does seem like each one of these cases were somehow connected, one way or the other, with some form of social media," Dennis said. "Predators, according to the FBI, are more transient and sophisticated than they've ever been in any other time in history and that's thanks to social media. Our children are walking around with a device that predators can easily access them at any given time."
KlaasKids has a prevalent online monitoring team that works a lot of the cases in which it's believed that social media or some other type of websites were involved or engaged in. The team has profiles on popular apps to share information on missing children.
Dennis recommends that parents Google search on a regular basis what the 10 most dangerous apps are for children and then go to their child's phone and inspect it.
"Lock down apps. Prevent any uploading of apps. Put this child's phone on a family plan where you have better control and safety over that child and what that child is doing," Dennis added.
He says children should stay away from apps that allow users to be completely anonymous and meet up with other people in the local area, like Kik, Snapchat, Whisper, ooVoo, Omegle and ASKfm.
Some parents make the mistake of locking down all the popular apps but allowing Facebook because they can be friends with their children on the site and check what they're posting. But through the games and other associated apps that come along with Facebook, kids can communicate with strangers unbeknownst to their parents.
"Children run away for one of two reasons and that is it. They run from something or they run to something," Dennis added. "If you are not spending time with you child, encouraging them, validating them, empowering them, some predator will."
Officials stress that an open dialogue between parents and their children is key.
"It comes down to parents establishing the rules, providing guidance, being engaged with their children on a day to day basis on who they're talking to and what they're doing and communicating their expectations of appropriate conduct. There's no replacing the parent," Trotter said.
He explained that there's also those out there who victimize children through a form of blackmail called "sextortion," convincing them to send compromising photographs that can be used against them.
"Forcing them to have sex with them, forcing them to send them money, forcing them to bring others into their victim scheme or send them more compromising material," Trotter said.
The FBI has seen a significant increase in sextortion activity against children who use the internet, typically ages 10 to 17.
It is a criminal offense to solicit a child for immoral purposes and to transport a child across state lines. The production of child pornography, the dissemination of child pornography are felonies that are punishable by considerable amounts of time behind bars. Upon a conviction, sex offender registration is required.
Jannah Bailey with Child Protect says parents should keep an eye out for any change in their teen's behavior and if they're spending more time on their phone or computer.
"We have to educate our kids before they get to this phase, when they're in elementary school and before they get the cell phones, that there are really scary predators out there and this is what they do," Bailey said. "They meet kids online and they lie to them and they manipulate them and kids get up in it and sometimes, it is too late."
Dr. Noll says research shows that parental controls don't work to protect kids because the reality is that they know more than their parents about technology.
"Parents have to be involved in their kids' online life. Don't be afraid of technology. They have to be willing to go to uncomfortable places to talk to their kids about this, just like sex and drugs," Noll said. "Tell them what to do to protect themselves. Kids are doing this at an alarming rate and parents can't always be in front of it because it's too easy to hide."
As for Vickie and Chris Metcalf, they continue to update the "Help Find Alissia Freeman" Facebook page and constantly share her picture online and in different cities in the hopes someone will recognize her and come forward with important information.
In their exhausting quest for answers, they were targeted by scammers preying on vulnerable families. They got a message on Alissia's birthday in February on the Facebook page from someone who said they lived in Georgia and had been dating a man who they found out was a pimp. The tipster said they saw him with Alissia in Atlanta and alluded that she had been sold to someone in Canada.
The Metcalfs said the claims and conversations were detailed and convincing. They were told they could buy Alissia back from the human traffickers for $35,000. Another $35,000 payment was required once they were reunited with her.
The couple found out it was fake when they gave the information to the FBI. The IP address traced back to Russia.
"It was hard to think of her in that situation but at the same time, we were hopeful that we had something and we could find out where she was. At the end of it, we were still relieved that it wasn't it," Vickie said.
The investigation into her disappearance continues. Investigators are exploring all possibilities.
Her parents have a lot of hope that Alissia will come home and she's always in their thoughts.
"Keep getting her fliers out, keep getting her face out as much as we can and keep praying. It's going to keep going until we find her. We're not going to stop," her stepfather said. "Be careful what you let your kids do. Don't ever say it can't happen to you, because it can."
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