Middle school is an awkward time for a lot of girls. At that age, it can be so hard to fit in.
For Anna Thomas, middle school in metro Atlanta was a total nightmare. "I remember a bunch of girls would stare at me at lunch and make fun of me," Thomas, who is now 18, remembers. "People would walk by me and laugh at me." Her humiliation didn't end there.
Her classmates refused to let her sit in the back of the bus, where the "cool people" sat. Every time she raised her hand in English class, kids...
"I was telling him that basically my home life sucked because of my older sister. I didn't feel like anyone noticed me at home," she says. The man, whose name is withheld for privacy, seemed genuinely interested in her. He gave her all the attention she wasn't getting from her family.
Soon, Amanda says he began enticing her to leave her house in rural Illinois to visit him in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I live next to a cornfield that's next to a cornfield…He was telling me there's beaches here, and they've got all these shops," says Amanda, who knew the man's age. "He said, 'If you come here, we can do all these things. Go places.'"
Finally, Amanda agreed to go. After telling her mother she was going to a friend's house, Amanda hitchhiked to Florida. But as soon as she got to the man's apartment, there was a knock at the door. Her mother had called the police. Two detectives were waiting to take her home.
Not long after Amanda returned home, the man came to Illinois. Amanda had given him her address, so he knew exactly where to find her. Again, Amanda went off with him. Again, her mother tracked them down and Amanda was returned home.
Many years later, Amanda found out that the man had kidnapped and sexually assaulted another 15-year-old girl. Today, he's serving jail time.
Now that she's 26, Amanda can't believe how naïve she was to agree to meet a strange man she'd met online. "I just can't believe I did it. But at the time, I didn't think anybody was out to hurt me," she says.
How Safe Are You Online?
Before you panic, thinking that predators are lurking in cyberspace waiting to kidnap you, know that what happened to Amanda is really rare. It's unusual for teens to get lured by online strangers. Most of the time when teens are sexually harassed online, it's kids their age who are doing it.