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We all come in contact with small evidence that it’s happening around our country like Amber alerts or posters on the wall at the post office and nearby liquor store. I’m talking about kidnappings. It all seems too distant and unreal when it’s just another text alert or one of many paper notices buried beneath fliers on a bulletin board. But it is very real. In fact, over 400,000 reports of missing children are made each year. That doesn’t even account for all of the incidents that aren’t reported. Remember that, often, children are kidnapped by their own family members. Since that can complicate matters, the true guardians may not even make a report. But that doesn’t mean that that child isn’t still abducted and terrified. Rather than wait to get that Amber alert, in honor of National Missing Children’s Day, let’s educate ourselves on signs of potential kidnappers.

missing children's day

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New and suspicious church members

Though it’s very sad that someone would take advantage of a religious institution—a place where people should feel safe—to abduct a child, it does happen. If you notice a new member of the church whom you’ve never seen before hanging out long after services and talking to children, keep an eye on the situation. Some kidnappers pose as church members to gain the trust of children, and they know they may be able to snatch a child because parents aren’t as alert here, never assuming someone would do a kidnapping at a church.

missing children's day

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Sending another child

Many kidnappers are smart enough to know that strange adults approaching children looks suspicious. So, alarmingly, many use other children to lure in victims. They may even use a child they’ve already kidnapped to approach another child and ask her to go with him to play somewhere else or to see something cool.

missing children's day

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Asking for directions

If you ever see an adult pull over and ask a kid or teen for directions, be on high alert. These days, people have smartphones and GPS systems. It’s very rare someone needs to ask someone for directions. Furthermore, it’s odd one would ask a child over an adult.

missing children's day

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Asking a child for any sort of assistance

Watch out for adults soliciting the help of children to find their pet or even their lost child. Again, it’s not normal for an adult to ask a child for assistance with this kind of thing. How much help can a child provide? And there is no reason a child should walk alone with a stranger to help him find something.

missing children's day

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What does the child call the adult?

Listen closely to what the child calls the adult she’s with. Does she call the adult “Mom,” “Dad,” “Auntie” or other familiar terms? Or does the child resort to calling the adult “Mister” or “Misses?” This is a sign that the child doesn’t know the adult.

missing children's day

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Someone acting as a family member or friend

Sometimes kidnappers will approach kids alone and say, “I’m a friend of your parents” or “I’m your mother’s cousin.” Through social media, kidnappers can learn a lot about people, and may even be able to use the right names like, “I’m your mom’s cousin Susan.” Perhaps the child has heard of Susan and trusts this adult. But, no parent would send any adult—even a family member—to talk to their child without letting the child know in advance.

missing children's day

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Surprise school pickups

Sometimes kidnappers pretend to be a friend or neighbor sent to pick up a child from school. This will likely happen outside of regular pickup times—perhaps early—to prevent arriving at the same time as the actual parent. If you work at a school or volunteer at one, and an adult arrives outside of normal pickup time, claiming a parent sent them, call that parent to confirm.

missing children's day

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“Talent” scouters

Kidnappers can rely on the egos of kids a lot. One way they do this is by pretending to be talent scouters. They’ll walk up to children and say, “I work for a modeling agency” or “I’m a photographer—I’d love to put you in a magazine” and ask the child to go with them. Actual talent scouters, photographers, producers and such do not walk around seeking talent like this. They have offices. They have casting directors find experienced talent with portfolios for them.

missing children's day

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Solo adults at playgrounds

If you notice an adult circling a playground who doesn’t appear to have a child there, be on high alert. Ask this adult who his child is. If he can’t provide an answer, ask him to leave. You can get backup from the other parents if you feel unsafe.

missing children's day

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A crying child with a nervous adult

Children cry and throw tantrums sometimes. And, not all parents know how to stop a tantrum. So a screaming, upset child alone is not a sign of a kidnapping. But the child’s actual parent would either remain calm, in an attempt not to indulge the tantrum, or actively try to stop it. Either way, the parent would be focused on the child, and not looking around nervously to see how others are perceiving the event.

missing children's day

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An adult giving out presents

It’s not normal for adults to just go around handing out presents to children they do not know. Even if it’s an elderly individual who you suspect may be lonely or just genuinely misses her own grandchildren, still do not allow a child to go off on his own with this person.

missing children's day

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Suspicious authority figures

Why would a security guard or even cop walk with a child without a parent? Real authority figures know that guardians must be present, even if an event has occurred like a child stealing candy from a store. If you see someone dressed as a policeman or security guard taking a child alone somewhere, stop the person and state he should wait for the parent to arrive.

missing children's day

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Offering kids a ride on a fun vehicle

While motorcycles, Vespas, and other unique vehicles are intriguing to kids, adults should not be offering children they don’t know a ride on these. It may seem harmless at first glance because it’s not like a van where someone can hide children, but if this person wants to ride off with a child, the child won’t jump off at high speeds.

missing children's day

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Someone offering to help find the parents

If a child is lost in a grocery store or other public place, and an adult offers to help the child find her parents by whisking her away from the public space, stop the event. It’s safest for the child to remain where she lost her parent. Security and staff there can make announcements and can watch the child. There’s no reason an adult should take a child away from the place she lost her parent to find that parent.

missing children's day

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An adult answering questions for the child

If you ask a child some questions—simple ones like, “What are you doing today?” or “Is this your mom?” and the adult abruptly answers for the child, while the child appears nervous, something could be going on. Sometimes parents answer for shy children but if this parent makes a point to answer before the child can say anything, that may be a kidnapper.

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