In September 2018, a New Jersey-based law enforcement operation codenamed “Operation Open House” yielded 24 arrests of men alleged to have attempted to groom children for sex using mobile chat apps.
The multi-agency sting operation, which involved state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies and hinged upon undercover officers posing online as underage girls and boys, prompted a widely-shared report by the NJ.com news website which carried the headline “Predators are using Fortnite to lure kids. Cops say parents need to worry”:
First, parents worried about their children being approached by predators at grocery stores and on playgrounds. Then the threat moved online via shady profiles on social media. Now, authorities say, some phone apps have opened even more channels of communication between adult predators and minors — including some video games like Fortnite and Minecraft.
[I]n announcing the arrests of 24 alleged predators, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal warned the public that people looking to take advantage of young teens and children have more options to do so than ever due to the ever-developing landscape of internet communication.
“It is a frightening reality that sexual predators are lurking on social media, ready to strike if they find a child who is vulnerable,” Grewal said in describing how the 24 suspects were attempting to lure and elicit sex with teenagers.
Along with other alarming reports, such as those published by ThatsInappropriate.com and ScaryMommy.com, NJ.com’s article prompted multiple concerned inquiries from readers about the use of gaming apps such as Fortnite by those seeking to groom children for sex. Fortnite was the only app named in the headlines of all three of those articles.
In reality, despite its phenomenal popularity, Fortnite was not used by any of the 24 men arrested and charged with attempting to lure children for sex online in New Jersey in September 2018. However, it has been used by other would-be sexual predators in the past, the state Attorney General’s office told us.
In an 18 September press release announcing the arrests, the office of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal outlined the basics of Operation Open House and detailed the allegations against the 24 defendants:
Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today announced arrests of 24 alleged child predators in “Operation Open House,” a multi-agency undercover operation targeting men who allegedly were using social media in an attempt to lure underage girls and boys for sexual activity.
The underage “children” were, in fact, undercover officers. Most of the defendants were arrested when they arrived at a house in Toms River, N.J., where they allegedly expected to find their victim home alone. Instead, they found dozens of law enforcement officers prepared to arrest them and process any evidence seized …
The operation was led by the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ), the New Jersey Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which is led by the New Jersey State Police, and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. The ICAC Task Force includes the Division of Criminal Justice, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), all 21 County Prosecutors’ Offices, and many other state, county and local law enforcement agencies …
All 24 defendants are charged with second-degree luring. Many defendants face additional charges, including second-degree attempted sexual assault on a minor and third-degree attempted debauching the morals of a child. Five men face third-degree charges of attempted sharing obscene materials with a child for allegedly sending photos of their genitals to undercover detectives.
The undercover law enforcement members who conducted the chats with the defendants were specially trained members of the ICAC Task Force. The defendants typically initiated contact based on profiles posted on social media platforms by the undercover detectives and agents. The social platforms that were used in these encounters included Kik, Skout, Whisper and Grindr.
Once chatting began, the undercover officers clearly identified themselves as underage girls or boys. Despite that information, the defendants allegedly engaged the purported “children” in conversations about sex, and all 24 defendants are alleged to have made arrangements to meet the “children” for sex. The chats were conducted over a period of several weeks leading up to the “meet-up” week when arrests were made.
A spokesperson for Attorney General Grewal confirmed to us by email that the only apps used by the 24 defendants arrested in September 2018 were the chatting apps Kik, Scout, Whisper and, Grindr: “None of the 24 defendants used the three gaming apps mentioned (Fortnite, Minecraft or Discord). Those were used by defendants in prior cases. The four listed apps were the only ones used. Gmail was used in one case, and other defendants also texted … ”
So Fortnite, which was the focus of several news articles about the Operation Open House arrests, only featured in passing in the Attorney General’s press release, and only in reference to previous grooming investigations and not the one which led to 24 arrests in September 2018:
In past cases, the ICAC Task Force has made arrests of alleged child predators who used the following chat apps: Kik, Skout, Grindr, Whisper, Omegle, Tinder, Chat Avenue, Chat Roulette, Wishbone, Live.ly, Musical.ly, Paltalk, Yubo, Hot or Not, Down, and Tumblr. Arrests also have been made involving the gaming apps Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord.
That does not mean parents do not need to be vigilant about their children’s use of gaming apps such as Fortnite and Minecraft. At a press conference announcing the arrests, Grewal highlighted a parental warning produced and shared by his office, which asked parents to become familiar with 19 popular apps, four of which were used by would-be predators in the context of Operation Open House, and the other 15 in previous cases:
It’s absolutely critical that parents familiarize themselves with these apps. Just as you are vigilant about a stranger approaching your child in a park, you need to be equally if not more vigilant about the dangers lurking in these new cyber-playgrounds.
Make sure that the apps on your children’s devices are age-appropriate. Talk to your children about social media and chat apps like these. Let them know that the people they encounter may not be who they initially seem to be. Warn them not to share personal information or pictures with strangers they encounter on the internet. Only together can we fully ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children.
According to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, the gaming apps Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord are among several apps popular among teenagers and children but also used by would-be sexual predators for the purpose of grooming. Four chatting apps were used by 24 men arrested in September 2018 as part of an undercover sting operation which yielded serious charges including attempted sexual assault.
However, Fortnite, Minecraft, and Discord were not used by the 24 men arrested in that particular sweep, despite the fact that several news reports focused heavily on those apps and mentioned only Fortnite in their headlines.