She catches sex traffickers for a living: How to keep your child safe

Child sex trafficking is a tough topic to talk about. But it’s an issue affecting every corner of our country. In 2021, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 17,200 reports of possible child sex trafficking. Those reports came from every U.S. state and from every type of community including rural, urban and tribal lands. “This is a dark subject. And people don't necessarily want to hear about it,” actress and human rights activist Marisol Nichols told the audience at this year’s MAKERS Conference. “But if good people don't hear about it, then nothing gets done about it.”

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Nichols told the MAKERS audience that one of the most important things for people to learn about is how to keep kids safe online. According to the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, an estimated 40% of sex trafficking victims are recruited online. This is no surprise when you consider that 35% of teens ages 13 to 17 say they use a social media platform such as TikTok or Instagram “almost constantly.” To keep children from falling victim online, Nichols said parents need to enforce certain rules about what their kids are posting. “Don’t let kids post in front of your home or in front of a car with a license plate or in front of the school. Now that guy knows where your kid is and knows where they go to school. These guys are clever.” Nichols knows all of this because she’s watched these guys at work and has helped bring them to justice.

ACTING FOR A CAUSE

For years, Nichols was best known for her acting roles in popular TV series such as 24 and Riverdale. But over the past decade, she’s made a name for herself by playing a different kind of role: undercover operative. “About 2012, I started learning about human trafficking,” Nichols said. “I befriended a woman who was traveling around the world, educating people about their human rights. And she would come back, and she would tell me these things about child brothels.” As the mother of a young daughter, Nichols said the issue haunted her. “I've always believed that if you're going to do something about anything, you have to learn about it. I wanted to be educated about it. So I dove in.” Nichols set up meetings with law enforcement, nonprofits and government officials. She said the more she learned, the more she knew she had to get involved.

Actor Marisol Nichols shares tips on how to keep kids safe from online predators at The 2022 MAKERS Conference on October 25, 2022. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The MAKERS Conference)
Actor Marisol Nichols shares tips on how to keep kids safe from online predators at The 2022 MAKERS Conference on October 25, 2022. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for The MAKERS Conference)

In 2016, Nichols created her own nonprofit Slavery Free World and tapped into her celebrity circles to help raise awareness. At one of her red carpet events, Nichols connected with Tim Ballard, a former special agent with the Department of Homeland Security and the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, an organization that aims to rescue children from slavery. Ballard presented Nichols the unique opportunity to use her acting talents within his child-trafficking sting operations. “He's like, ‘Do you want to go undercover?’ I was like, ‘OK,’” said Nichols. “And so, he immediately gave me a character.” Wearing a baseball cap and a hidden camera, and speaking in an accent she created, Nichols infiltrated a sex ring and got the crucial information investigators needed to stop it. That first operation led to many others with Nichols taking on a new character each time. “I would change my voice to be a little 9-year-old girl or a 12-year-old girl. I played the methed-out mom,” she said. “For an entire weekend, all I did was talk to pedophiles. It was insane. But we got them. And we put them behind bars.”

This is a dark subject. And people don't necessarily want to hear about it. But if good people don't hear about it, then nothing gets done about it.”Marisol Nichols, Actor and Founder of Slavery Free World

HOW TO KEEP KIDS SAFE ONLINE

Nichols said these criminals often target kids who post angry messages about their parents online. “This happens on games. This happens on apps. And the first thing they try to do is get your child into a separate chatroom, like Discord or Snapchat.” To lure their victims in, Nichols said predators often create fake profiles to make kids think they are talking to a peer. Once a connection is made, she said the perpetrator might chat with the child for as long as three to four months. “They're patient. They know how to talk like a kid. They'll misspell words. They use the slang. They do all of that.” If you’re a parent who is worried about someone new that your child has connected with online, Nichols suggested that the child request a video from the person. “You can send a fake picture all day long, but how about a video? ‘Hi, Jenny, it's me. I just wanted to say hi.’ There you go. That's one way of proving it.”

Nichols admitted that it’s a difficult topic for parents to discuss with their kids, but she said starting the conversation is imperative to keeping them safe. “You have to educate yourself and educate your kid,” said Nichols. “You have to do it in a way that's not overwhelming because you don't want to scare your kid.” When she talks to her own daughter about the issue, Nichols said she emphasizes that the world is full of good people and it’s just a small number of bad guys whom we need to protect ourselves from. Nichols launched a new podcast featuring behind-the-scenes stories of her undercover operations as well as expert insights on how to fight this global issue. “There's lots of resources out there,” Nichols said. “Find a way to have those tough conversations. Let's make a really safe and beautiful future for our kids.”