Because "Fortnite" players can form allegiances, the game relies on open communication to work.

Photo by: Image from Fortnite [Fortnite / YouTube (screenshot)]

Image from Fortnite [Fortnite / YouTube (screenshot)]

By: Catherine Townsend

Since it launched in July 2017, Fortnite has risen to become the most massively popular video game on the planet. It’s played by 125 million people including celebrities, athletes, and (probably) your kids.

But the game is also causing concern as experts worry that children could be vulnerable to scammers, sexual predators, and thieves.

Kids have been flocking to the Battle Royale game. It’s based on the Japanese book and movie of the same name — players create a superhero avatar and compete against each other, Hunger Games–style, on a dystopian island.

Each game starts with 100 players and continues until there is just one last man standing.

Because players can form allegiances, the game relies on open communication to work. This means that microphones are enabled, which experts say should be a cause of concern for parents.

Recently, the National Crime Agency (NCA) warned parents that pedophiles were playing the game in order to talk to young children. One mother from Liverpool, England, claimed her 12-year-old son was offered £50 ($71) to perform a sex act.

An NCA spokesperson said: “Fortnite is immensely popular with children and teenagers across the country. It features voice and text chat which cannot be turned off, so it’s important that parents and teachers understand that there are broader risks associated with the game and enable safe playing.”

Fortnite isn’t the only game used by predators.

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old boy named John Aubrey Peal disappeared from his home in Memphis, Tennessee. Peal’s father claims that two men, Juan E. Andrade and Jason St. Aubin, lured Peal out of his home on the Discord Gaming app.

They kept him captive for four days before they were arrested — and reportedly told Peal that he was saving them from suicide.

Callahan Walsh, an advocate for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said he had worked on a case involving a 14-year-old girl whose chatting with someone from another country ended with the stranger showing up at her home to harm her. Walsh reiterated that parents should familiarize themselves with what their children are doing on game systems and phones.

Photo by: Juan E. Andrade and Jason St. Aubin [Olive Branch Police ]

Juan E. Andrade and Jason St. Aubin [Olive Branch Police ]

We take our community’s safety very seriously and are constantly assessing and improving our trust and safety measures. Discord is an over-13 platform and we insist that all users adhere to this policy. All chats are opt-in so that the user must accept an invitation, and we urge our community only to chat with individuals whom they know,” the Discord apps media team said in a statement.

“We have also created a number of security measures to help block unknown users from contacting others. As with any digital communication platform there are risks. We urge parents to teach their children the risks of communicating online and the importance of chatting to only those they know. We will continue to work with our community and law-enforcement agencies when appropriate to develop the best practices to ensure our community’s safety.”

“User safety is our biggest concern, but also our biggest challenge,” says Melanie Christin, whose company runs a browser game called Transformice.

Make sure your children aren’t meeting anyone in the real world that they only know online. It’s also important for parents to set ground rules and stick to them. And then have ongoing conversations with your children about safety.”

Christin told CrimeFeed that her company is in constant contact with law enforcement, and puts a high priority on user safety. “Ensuring safety can take many forms, such as protecting user data from malicious intent. In that regard, we apply state of the art encryption and protection of our databases in order to deter all attempts of leaking passwords or other sensitive info,” she said.

To tackle child predators, she says that her company has a “a team of over 250 benevolent moderators patrolling the game around the clock” and that the game provides an interface to report other players. She added: “We apply a zero tolerance about any kind of sexual talk in the game, and systematically apply a definitive ban to all accounts suspicious of such activity, banning their IP and email in order to prevent them coming back under another account name.”

But predators aren’t just scouring online for sex — some are also stealing money. Though the game is free, players are allowed to buy extras like costumes using “V-Bucks,” which cost real money.

One Minnesota mother said that her eight-year-old son was pressured into sending photos of her personal information in exchange for the Fortnite currency. Krista Kneeland-Pearson said that her son Charlie “started spending a lot of money without even realizing what he was doing.”

Kneeland-Pearson said she was shocked one night to discover a string of messages on the game prompting her son to secretly send photos of cards he pulled from her wallet. The perpetrator also called her son from North Carolina, she said, and instructed Charlie to take pictures of her Visa card and the front and back of her driver’s license.

I really didn’t want to do it,” Charlie said. “They just kept on telling me to, and then I didn’t want them to get mad at me, so I just did it.”

Kneeland-Pearson filed a report with the Lakeville Police, but Lieutenant Bill Gerl stated that merely having a photo of the items was not a crime — the thieves would have to take action in order for a crime to have been committed. “You just have to educate your kids and let them know that you should never be giving a stranger information about yourself online,” he said.

Christin cautioned that parents should “never, under any circumstances, give access to your child to your Paypal account, credit card, or your iPad’s password. This might seem like an obvious advice, but we get emails from angry parents with huge bills daily, because they didn’t secure their Paypal account,” she said. “Kids are smart; don’t use the same password for everything.”

Christin recommends that parents never allow their children access to a game that provides a free chat system without supervision. “This is something that parents MUST discuss with their children, like you’re teaching them never to follow a stranger, you need to teach them about the dangers of society on the internet too. Teach them to recognize a predatory behavior, and to stop the game and call for help when they see one,” she said.

She also advises parents that it’s a good idea to play the game with their children. “Parents often ‘give up’ understanding their children’s favorite hobby like video games, thinking they won’t be able to comprehend it enough to have meaningful interaction,” she said. “But ask your kid to explain the game to you in a truly genuine manner, and they will be delighted to do so when they see you’re truly interested.”

The trend shows no sign of dying down: Analysts estimate that Fortnite is currently raking in more than $300 million a month, according to New York magazine.

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