Alicia “Kozak” Kozakiewicz is the subject of the first known case of child abduction by an online predator. On January 1, 2002, then 13-year-old Alicia was abducted just outside of her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her abductor, a 38-year-old man who had been grooming her since their first online encounter.
“I was chatting with someone online who I thought was my age who was my friend. This was back in 2001 and 2002 and the internet was very new. There were no safety seminars, no PSAs, nothing to say how dangerous it really was. Sometimes people look at my situation where they are now and say, ‘how could she not have known? How could her family not have known?’… we didn’t.” Kozak said.
After forcing Alicia into his car, he drove her to his home in Herndon, Virginia. There, in a basement dungeon, he chained her by the neck, sexually assaulted her, and streamed the torture live on the internet. The FBI got a tip from someone who had seen the live-stream. That person recognized Alicia from her missing poster shared by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). The FBI agents were able to find the location of the home and after four days of torture, Alicia was rescued.
“It was a miracle. Children in my situation, children in stranger abductions, are so rarely recovered safety. That was a gift and I felt I had this information and this ability, this duty if you will, to save other children and I was given this gift and I needed to share it,” Kozak said.
After recovering, at the age of 14 she became an advocate for children who are victims of internet predators and sexual exploitation. Her advocacy came in the form of speaking to the public and legislators, resulting in the passage of Alicia’s Law.
“I learned at a very young age that there is so much evil in this world. There are truly heinous things that happen to people that are done by other people. But, there is so much more good and good has to be louder, good has to stand up, good has to shine a light into that darkness and say ‘I’m going to fight for these children,” Kozak said.
She also believes parents play a vital role in the safety of their children. She urges parents to communicate openly with their children, look at their child’s phone, know their passwords, and search for harmful conversations or grooming behavior.
“There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ out there. I can tell you ‘what is.’ It is happening in your community,” Kozak said.
While Alicia says she does not want to instill fear, she does know the reality that many people do not talk about or want to talk about. She now targets her attention on the positive things that can come from her experience and how she can use her platform to help others.
“Communication, education, and effective legislation. Those are three things I’ve always really focused on,” Kozak said.
Alicia’s Law and the Alicia Project
The Alicia’s Law website shows that the law has been passed in 12 states, including Texas in 2011. This law secured $3 million for law enforcement to investigate Internet Crimes Against Children.
The website also further explains the law stating, “Due to a lack of dedicated federal resources, less than two percent of known child exploitation cases are being investigated. Alicia’s Law provides a dedicated steady stream of state-specific funding to the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces.”
For anyone who needs help talking to their family or friends, there is a list of communication and internet safety tips on Alicia’s website.
When it comes to the rumors circulating on social media about Wayfair (an online home decor and furniture store) being involved in human and child trafficking, Alicia says these are false and dangerous and even posted a video about this topic to her Facebook page and Instagram to address some of the misinformation.
She’s not the only one.
This article by Reuters called “Fact check: No evidence linking Wayfair to human trafficking operation,” breaks down the claims. This article calls it a hoax and takes the reader through what people are saying online. AP did two articles on this subject matter. This one titled, “Baseless Wayfair child-trafficking theory spreads online,” and a second article titled, “Video does not show a girl being promoted for child trafficking by Wayfair,” There are also many other fact-checking articles on this topic done by various local news media outlets.
According to some law enforcement agencies and activists, a large portion of the spreading of the rumors and false information is coming from social media influencers and celebrities.
Social media influencers are spokespeople who often partner with various brands or promote a type of lifestyle or product, often for pay or other types of compensation. Influencers often have a large following on their social media and streaming platforms. Influencers are also found in the gaming industry and are not strangers to receiving backlash for what they post. In 2017 the Federal Trade Commission settled the first ever complaint against individual social media influencers. Read more about influencers, here.
USA Today posted this article called, “How an Arizona couple helped fuel a Wayfair sex trafficking conspiracy theory,” detailing an influencer couple’s role in the spread of false information.
Polaris, a nonprofit that is dedicated to fighting human trafficking and the organization that operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, issued this statement regarding the circulation of rumors and the influx of calls they were receiving.
The statement Polaris issued says in part:
“We deeply appreciate those members of the public who have contacted the Trafficking Hotline out of heartfelt concern. In the vast majority of situations, the people in the best position to identify trafficking are victims and survivors themselves and the people who know them. This may be friends or family members, teachers, but may also be people who have some information but are not necessarily close to the situation. We strongly encourage everyone to learn more about what human trafficking really looks like in most situations, and about how you can help fight trafficking in your own community.”
Polaris also wrote about this issue in a blog post titled, “How Unproven Trafficking Stories Spread Online and Why Stopping Them Matters.”
According to their website, Polaris was founded in 2002. Polaris is named after the North Star. This star was used as a guide by people held in slavery in the United States. The North Star is also regarded as a symbol of freedom.
Polaris lists three main points of their mission on their website:
- Serving victims and survivors through the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
- Building a data-set that illuminates how human trafficking really works, in real time.
- Turning knowledge into targeted systems-level strategies to disrupt and prevent human trafficking.
The Search for Missing Children
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC, says on their website that they “lead the fight against abduction, abuse, and exploitation.”
To search the NCMEC database for missing children, click here.
NCMEC lists the risk factors for children when it comes to the possibility of them begin exploited.
While any child can be targeted by a trafficker, research has shown that traffickers often target children with increased vulnerabilities, including:
- Children who are chronically missing or who frequently run away (especially 3+ missing incidents)
- Children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, especially if the abuse was unreported or unaddressed, or resulted in the child being removed from the home
- Children who have experienced prior sexual assault or rape
- Children with significant substance abuse issues or who live with someone who has significant substance abuse issues
- Children who identify as LGBTQ and have been kicked out or who have been stigmatized by their family.
NCMEC also provides some statistics on their website pertaining to missing children:
In 2019 NCMEC assisted law enforcement and families with more than 29,000 cases of missing children.
- 91 percent endangered runaways.
- 4 percent family abductions.
- 4 percent critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20.
- Less than 1 percent nonfamily abductions.
- 1 percent lost, injured or otherwise missing children.
Of the nearly 26,300 runaways reported to NCMEC in 2019, 1 in 6 were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
If you need help, there are support organizations and agencies in local areas. If you would like to help, those organizations are in need of donations and volunteers. For the Concho Valley, Open Arms is one group that offers victims’ services but they also provide a list of other local resources. For a list of state (Texas) and national resources, click here.