A Heads‐Up for Parents: Is Your Teen a Target?

It’s late at night and Tim McWhirter’s phone rings. He answers, “Agency?” The voice on the other end is near hysterics. “My son is missing!” For Tim this is not an unusual call. He is a private investigator, experienced in the retrieval of missing teens and children. He speaks calmly to the parents of the missing boy, sifting through the barrage of frantic and disjointed information. His questions are specific. He knows what he’s looking for.

When it comes to a missing child or teen, time is of the essence. Tim meets with the family immediately. The missing boy is an 18 year‐old honor student about to head off to college. What should be an exciting time for this family has turned into a nightmare. Tim learns that the parents had recently purchased a brand new SUV for their son as a graduation gift. When the parents received a phone call from a man who had a few questions about the SUV he claimed he had just purchased from their son, they knew something was terribly wrong. Their son had not returned home and was not answering his cell phone. That’s when Tim was called.

The son had been spending most of his time with a new friend. Since this new friend had come into their son’s life, they noticed his attitude had begun to change. He no longer had time to spend with his old friends and had become more secretive.

Tim quickly begins investigating this new friend. He finds that the teen has a criminal record and a current warrant out for his arrest. Working through the night with his investigative team, Tim does what he calls “pulling rabbits out of hats.” His team determines that the boys are somewhere in Mississippi. They found evidence that the two would be heading through Atlanta on their way to catch a flight to Central America.

Judging from the information they had on the new friend as well as other resources, they hypothesized that the two are going to use the money from the SUV to begin dealing drugs. Two problems arise: one, the son is 18 years‐old and cannot legally be stopped; secondly, he hasn’t broken any laws… yet. Thinking fast, Tim heads to the airport and talks to the commander of the police precinct. He tells him about the two boys and how one of them has a warrant out for his arrest.

As the two boys head towards their gate, they are approached by the police. The new friend is stopped and hand cuffed. Tim watches the other boy slip away. The boy wanders around for a little while, eventually heading home to his family.

Upon the son’s return home, the parents learn that Tim’s hypothesis was correct. The son’s new friend convinced him they could make a lot of money importing drugs from Central America and selling them in the States. The $20,000 they got from the SUV was how they were going to buy in. Tim is familiar with this type of scenario. He says many young people are lured into these types of situations in hopes of making a lot of money, quickly. He calls it “long on plans, short on brains.” Unfortunately, most of them don’t end so well. “These drug dealers are experienced and are looking for kids like these. Usually they simply take the buy‐in money and the kids are murdered, or at best, they are set free in the middle of nowhere.” The parents of the boy were not only relieved, but said the experience jolted their son enough to set him straight.

The whole operation went down in under 20 hours from the time Tim was called. Tim has found every child and teen he has been hired to retrieve. He has found all of them in less than 72 hours; however he says he often wonders, “For every one I find… how many are never found?” According to statistics, about 58,000 teens and children are reported missing each year; 5,000 of those being stereotypical kidnappings in which a stranger or acquaintance abducts a child with intent to abuse, kill or hold for ransom.

Tim says that many parents are initially shocked when something like this happens with their teen, but in hindsight say that the signs were there. He says there are plenty of warnings signs parents should be aware of even though many can be subtle.

5 Signs Your Teen May be in Trouble:

  1. A sudden change in appearance. The child begins to dress dramatically different indicating he or she has a new group of friends. The change could be more provocative or sloppy or they may stop caring about hygiene.
  2. Grades begin to drop.
  3. A sudden, dramatic change in music.
  4. A change in attitude towards parents. The child becomes more defiant, dishonest or secretive.
  5. Most importantly: new friends. The child switches from childhood or long‐time friends to friends that parents are less familiar with.

Tim urges, “As parents we must be vigilant, we have to be on the lookout.” He has found that the most prevalent cause of teen runaways or “lureaways” is ambivalence by one or both of the parents. “We can’t protect our children and look the other way at the same time. They need us to care enough to know what is going on in their lives on a daily basis. If you’re too busy, then you’re too busy.” He encourages parents not to live in fear for their teen, but have a healthy amount of knowledge about what is going on in their day‐to‐day lives.

Tim goes on to say “lured‐aways”, as opposed to the runaways, are easier prey. If predators are able to lure someone away, they are obviously offering something that fulfills a need in that child’s life. Predators are looking for someone to fill their agenda. Talking to your children and staying in tune with their needs, fears and insecurities is key to keeping them from finding solutions elsewhere. Tim says that once a child is lured away there are very few scenarios, if any, that end well. “Things tend to get bad real quick.”

Tim consults with many parents on keeping their teens safe and says there are a few simple ways to monitor your teen’s activities if you have reason to be concerned.

5 Ways to Stay Informed:

  1. Check their computer or your home computer often. Check the history/recent searches to see what sites your teen has been looking at. If the history has been erased or is frequently erased, it is a sure sign your teen doesn’t want you to know what they’ve been up to online. Tim’s computer forensics team has often retrieved erased, hidden and deleted information that has aided in the recovery of missing teens.
  2. If you have a teenager they most likely have a MySpace or FaceBook. Check it regularly. This is a good way to see who your kid’s friends are and who they are talking to. Children under 18 should have their profile set to “private” on these sites. There are plenty of on‐line predators pretending to be someone they are not, in hopes of luring a child into a dangerous situation. Be aware that many times kids will use fake names in order to keep it hidden from their parents, so if you feel you have reason to be concerned, you may need to hire a computer forensics professional.
  3. You can also use a GPS tracking system in your child’s phone or car. Check their phone bills to see who they are spending most of their time talking too.
  4. If you are sure there is more going on than you are able to monitor, and feel it is necessary, hire a private investigator to help you. They are not only discreet, but they are well equipped to handle these types of situations.
  5. Most importantly, the goal is keeping your children safe. Tim says it is absolutely vital to make sure your children do not know you are keeping tabs on them. If you find revealing or concerning information about your teen, keep your resources private. Kids are smart and will keep their trail hidden the next time around. You want to use this information to aid you in protecting them, not force them underground.

Finally, Tim says the strongest weapon in keeping your teen safe, is education. “Don’t try and shelter your teens from the horrors that are out there. Speak to them as adults concerning these matters. As an adult you have powerful information that you use to keep yourself safe. In turn, empower your children to avoid devastating situations by educating them in the things that will keep them safe as well.”

For more information or to speak with Tim directly, please contact:

Tim McWhirter

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