IN July, a 15-year-old girl was raped by two men she befriended through WeChat. While it might seem odd for a young girl to trust someone on a virtual platform, this scenario is becoming increasingly common.
A growing number of underage Malaysian girls are being groomed and lured by sexual predators through mobile chat apps like Facebook Messenger, WeChat and BeeTalk, and then sexually assaulted.
Rape cases involving online chat apps over the last six months have increased by nearly 50% compared to the previous six months, according to Bukit Aman’s statistics.
There has also been a staggering 300% increase in Internet-related rape crimes between 2010 and 2015.
In the first five months of 2015, rape by Internet acquaintances made up 82% of sex offenders’ modus operandi. Others such as influence by alcohol (7%), students who played truant (7%) and SMS acquaintances (3%) trail far behind.
DSP Tan Gee Soon from Bukit Aman’s D11 division (Sexual, Women and Child Investigation) said over 60% of the victims in Internet-related rape crimes from July to December 2014 were aged 12 to 18.
“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Many victims don’t want their parents to find out that they have befriended a stranger through a chat app. And when they get sexually assaulted by that person, it’s even more of a reason for them to keep it to themselves.”
Victims, especially the older ones, tend to blame themselves – even though they were clearly manipulated – and the Malaysian taboo against talking about sex doesn’t help either, said Tan.
This new wave of sexual predators operate by chatting with young girls through messaging apps, most of which have location-based search functions which connect users with others nearby.
They target girls who are young, naive and lonely, those who are going through puberty and experiencing problems which they feel they can’t share with their friends and families.
“Imagine you are a young, lonely girl on the cusp of adulthood and not sure where you fit in yet. Then someone who appears to be good-looking starts to sweet talk you and make you feel good about yourself. He makes you think that you can trust him, and that’s where it starts,” said clinical psychologist Aina Nur Azmi.
After spending a few months chatting, the perpetrator will invite the girl out on a date, and that’s when he takes advantage of her.
“Some of the rape cases we’ve seen happened on the victim’s first date with the suspect, whereas some were on their second or third dates,” said Tan. “And some girls don’t know the man’s background or even his full name, yet they are willing to go out with him.”.
One thing in common in all these cases is that these suspects normally have transport and will pick the girls up from their homes.
“Most suspects drive a car because girls won’t want to ride on a motorbike. They’ll take them out for a meal, then take them to secluded places or to the suspect’s own home, where they’ll rape them,” said Tan.
With that in mind, Tan’s advice for young women arranging a meet-up with someone they meet on chat apps is simple – always have your own transport. “You should never agree to have them pick you up for a date, or go anywhere at all in his car,” she said.
American YouTuber Coby Persin highlighted this issue in an experiment he set up last month to test out how willing teens are to meet strangers they’ve “befriended” online (see the video: youtu.be/6jMhMVEjEQg).
Persin contacted three teenage girls through Facebook and after a few days, invited them for a meet-up. What the girls didn’t know was that he’d already informed their parents about the experiment.
All three girls, aged 12, 13 and 14 respectively, willingly left their homes to meet up with him. One girl even got onto his van without hesitation. They were then confronted by their parents, who were initially convinced their daughters wouldn’t follow through with the meetings as they had all been warned about the dangers of speaking to strangers.
A cause for concern
Why are teenagers so inclined to pour their hearts out and ultimately, even meet complete strangers? According to Betty Yeoh, Project Director of All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), it all goes back to the family unit.
“People use these chat apps to communicate with strangers perhaps because there is a lack of communication in their own family. But they need to know the dangers attached to it and take precautions,” she said.
According to research company Global Web Index (GWI), 15 million Malaysians have mobile social accounts such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat. And one in every five Malaysians use location-based searches on their mobile phones.
The reason messaging apps (as opposed to social networks) are the new means of luring victims is simply because they have grown in popularity. It doesn’t matter what apps they are; it seems predators will shift to whichever app has the highest reach.
“Previously, WeChat was not that popular so the number of cases involving Facebook was higher,” said Tan.
In the same survey by GWI, 19% of Malaysians were found to use WeChat, 80% of whom were aged between 16 and 34.
The ever-changing new media landscape is providing a constant challenge for the police. “It is especially tricky when it involves social media as some use fake names and photos. And on certain messaging apps, you don’t even have those details,” she said.
Unfortunately, there is a limit to what the police can do to monitor such activities. Tan said: “We can’t block or monitor activities on messaging apps. Parents just have to pay more attention to their children, especially those in their teens as that is when they start to have an interest in the opposite gender.”
And naturally, when teens start getting curious about things their parents are reluctant to talk to them about, they turn to the Internet.
As a mother, that’s where Tan believes Malaysian parents have to do better. They simply have to learn to talk to their children about sex.
By leaving them to find out about it on the Internet, they could be exposed to more graphic content; and thinking that’s how sex normally is, suddenly sex with a stranger doesn’t seem so strange at all.
In fact, the taboo against talking about sex is so strong in Malaysia, sexual predators have started taking advantage of it.
According to Tan, these predators are so confident their victims will be too ashamed to report the crime, they actually use their personal social media or chat app accounts to lure these girls out – they don’t even bother creating fake accounts.
That’s why Tan is convinced that the reported cases are simply the tip of the iceberg. Despite the worrying number of Internet-related rape cases in the past year, she believes many more have gone unreported.
According to Aina, teenagers are also naturally rebellious, and at that age they feel that it’s difficult to find people with similar interests. “On the Internet, it’s easy for teens to find people who are ready to listen, who understand them and what they’re going through. That’s where they build an emotional attachment.”
Then there is the influence the perpetrators exert. Many practice a process called grooming to select the victim and prepare them for future sexual abuse. Signs that a teenager is being groomed include them being very secretive about what they’re doing online, receiving gifts like clothes and mobile phones that they cannot explain, and being emotionally volatile.
Stopping sexual assaults from happening to young girls is a joint effort.
Yeoh stressed that education is important when it comes to solving sexual crimes as a social issue.
But instead of only giving safety training to women and potential victims, more care should be taken to teach men and boys to be more responsible.
“Look at the problem from the other side and teach boys from a young age to know what is right and wrong,” she said.
The family and community can also help tackle the problem. “The generation gap may make your teen feel that she can’t tell you anything, and as a parent you might feel awkward talking about sex or even asking to check their phones out of the blue,” said Yeoh.
Parents should also train their kids to be more assertive. Sexual predators want to dominate and feel powerful, which is why they feel good when they are able to control the victims. Aina said victims are usually more passive and susceptible to suggestions.
But ultimately, parents must brace themselves for open communication, because the potential embarrassment is a small price to pay for a teenager’s safety and wellbeing.
Aina’s advice to parents is simply to build trust over time.
“Start by chatting with them about things that are going on in their lives, and build trust by sharing what is happening in your life with your children. When parents share information, it makes the child more willing to share their problems too.”
At press time, WeChat’s HQ in China had not replied with any comments for this story.
Tips on using mobile messaging apps safely
– Use safety filters and anti-virus programs on your phone and computer, and only use trustworthy apps.
– Be mindful that the people on the other side may not be who they say they are.
– Trust your gut. If you feel like you are being pressured to meet or give personal information, talk to a friend about it and immediately stop all contact with that person.
If you do meet up…
– Arrange for your own transportation, especially for the first few dates.
– Avoid meeting at secluded places.
– Be wary when he invites you to his home.
– Download personal safety apps like Watch Over Me and bSafe that helps your friends and family keep track of you via GPS.
– If you have been sexually assaulted, make a police report immediately. Do not take a shower, as this washes away crucial evidence. Tell someone you trust what happened – they could be used as witnesses against your attacker.
– Keep a copy of your chat log. It can be used as supporting evidence to prove you met at a certain time and place.