Sunday Mornings with Rania: When Everyday Errands Make You a Prime Target

It was a normal day – Thursday, October 24, 2019 – to be exact but what took place was beyond anyone’s imagination. She had been running errands that included going to the bank and then shopping at a major department store in the Galleria. On a mission, she hopped on the escalator unaware of what was coming – within moments, she was grabbed, beaten, her Chanel purse violently ripped off her shoulder by a knife widely used to cut the strap. In the attack, she was pushed down the escalator, her eye hit, her body beaten while her back absorbed the repeated sliding of the moving stairs… The suspects got away with her purse, her wallet, her keys and everything else that had been in her possession. It was only 2 p.m. in the afternoon.

What allegedly happened in this case:
During the course of the day, the woman had gone to the bank where she withdrew cash somewhere in the Tanglewood area. She caught the eye of a man and woman who allegedly followed her into the Galleria determined to steal her purse. The attackers got her while she least expected it. Many saw the attack.

As the story was shared, comments poured in and many asked, now what?

  • Recognize that no matter where you are in this city, jugging is a potential concern. It is the process of being watched at a bank, followed to your next destination and then robbed. Action steps: be vigilant when withdrawing cash; only take out what you need; and never leave your purse or cash envelopes / boxes in a car. Don’t run errands with excessive cash.
  • Be public safety minded, always. No matter where you are, think about your safety. Walk with purpose, make eye contact, think of how you hold your belongings, and whether or not you appear or even really are distracted. Are your hands full with items? Are you in the heat of a conversation on the phone? It’s absolutely not wrong to live life, have your hands full and/or be on a call but do all of this in a way where you are not setting yourself up to be targeted.
  • Where are you parking your car? Will be safe to go back to this spot and linger as you reload your car with bags? Are you returning after dark?
  • Notice the people around you and whether or not someone is potentially following you.
  • Sure, there may be security guards in stores but remember, they may not always be there to protect you. Sometimes, they are hired by vendors who rent space and are there working for their clients. They may not be watching for your safety nor run to you in the event of an issue.
  • What’s on you? What are you wearing? What’s in your purse? What’s in your wallet? Do you have copies of all essential items like credit cards, insurance cards, etc.? Are you carrying around mail or important school papers for your kids? Is it possible to leave things at home (not in your car!) before you run errands?
  • Think through the process. Have you ever asked yourself, if I were robbed today, what would I do? Would I fight? It’s a terrible question but think through the process. Determine what on your is worth fighting (and whether or not you should have it on you) and what on you you’d let go to save yourself. This terrible exercise serves another purpose – it takes away the shock factor if you’ve really thought through the scenario and helps you remain calm and think clearly at all times.

If you become a victim, where do you start?

  • Stay calm and get to a safe area as soon as possible.
  • Call police immediately.
  • Do your best to remember as many details about the incident as possible including any information on the individual(s) who attacked you.
  • If you’re in a store, report the incident to the store manager or security as well.
  • Take pictures of your body and any injuries immediately as well as the area where you were attacked.
  • Sadly, you – or someone authorized to call on your behalf – will need to start calling credit card companies to report your cards stolen cards.

It’s important that when we hear these stories, we don’t panic, get paranoid or hysterical but that we respond as a community that is growing, thriving and caring towards one another. Beyond getting involved in solutions, we need to use these cases to have conversations with our daughters, neighbors and friends as many of us get busy running errands during the holiday season. Above all else, Houston must be tough on crime, if we are not, it will absolutely affect the quality of life for all of us who call Houston home. It will take all of us working together to keep one another safe. For now, our hearts and prayers are with the victim here and best wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

Full blog can also be read via The Buzz Magazines here!

Sunday Mornings with Rania: When Kids are Targeted by Traffickers

She was a quiet 13-year-old who had recently lost her brother and was making her way through a difficult time. Sadly, she became the target of a trafficker who kidnapped her, raped her, drugged her and sold her. He was arrested not too long ago, but released three days later on misdemeanor drug charges. Released right back into our community, he allegedly went right back to trafficking Letty as well as another young girl. Desperate, depressed and damaged, Letty took her own life last week. She was only 15 years old.

Deep down, there are some who still think that teens who are trafficked are bad kids making bad choices. But they are not. Often, they are good kids caught up by things beyond their control. I posted about Letty, sat down with partners at KTRK to talk about her story and what it meant for all of us… the outpouring of responses has led to this post. So many asked me what we can and must do to stop the sex trafficking of minors. Here are some recommendations but I want to hear from you too, what do you think and what can we do better?

Understand what sex trafficking is and is not.
Minors cannot legally run away, they cannot legally consent to sex, they cannot legally choose to share sexually explicit photos of their bodies, they cannot legally accept payment for sex. This is the law and it’s the law because we know that minors don’t have the maturity or mental understanding to enter these types of relationships or agreements knowingly, willingly and with full comprehension of what they mean. It’s illegal. So, let’s start at ground zero – if a child is found to be involved in any one of those previously stated activities (like Letty was when her trafficker was arrested), we must intervene, always. Law enforcement must make arrests and the community must swoop in to protect the victim, the child. Always, period.

Well, how do kids get there?
Through many channels.

  • The rarest is that a child is outright abducted and sold.
  • More commonly, a child runs away and either straight into the arms of a trafficker who has been urging her to leave for years or is picked up by a trafficker as she tries to survive away from her home.
  • A rising method is through strategic friendships. Traffickers place recruiters directly into schools, camps, churches, parties, and more to identify potential victims. These recruiters (young children who were previously trafficked) befriend and take their time working their target. I previously outlined this process in this previous post.
  • Another rising method is through social media. Traffickers have teams of people scouting potential targets on social media.
  • Once they identify a victim, they will take time watching, befriending, commenting, chatting and doing everything possible to create a scenario to remove that child from your home and into their money-making empire.

Talk to your children. Seriously.
The greatest gift we can give these predators is access to children in homes where parents and teens have no idea this can happen to them. Traffickers have access to kids through school (any school – public, private, charter, etc.), parties, bumping into someone at the mall (Hey you’re cute! What’s your name? I’ll follow you!) and social media. We have seen time and time again that they will patiently wait and work the child until they can capitalize.

  • Talk to your kids. Be honest about how they can be a target and what to do if they suspect a friend is being preyed upon (contact an adult, law enforcement, Crime Stoppers of Houston, local police, school counselor or more) and why they need to stay away from pornography (it’s a gateway for future buyers of victims) as well as from certain Houston night spots (obviously, for older teens – clubs, strip clubs).
  • Monitor their social media and do a quarterly inventory of their accounts. Go through who is following them. Be reasonable but be thorough (they will have some followers they don’t know but go through them all and challenge them to remove where possible). Talk about hidden apps and the importance of them not hiding information from you online.
  • Understand where victims are sold. Make this real and share real information. Victims are sold at local clubs, strip clubs, massage parlors (Children At Risk has a tremendous interactive map), hotels, motels, apartments and more.
  • Review the laws. Remind them that children who post or share inappropriate photos of themselves (or send them to another who asks) will be held responsible for creation of and distribution of child pornography. Remember, a minor cannot willingly choose to take a photo of themselves and share it… it’s illegal, period and always.
  • How does it start? Remind them that traffickers are looking for their targets at the mall, a party, a church conference, camps or any other place where teens may be. Here’s the deal – make friends, not everyone is bad but know the signs of how traffickers specifically work so that you can quickly identify right from wrong.

Be loud about what we need as a community.

  • Governor Greg Abbott is working on laws to address human trafficking and make the punishment traffickers face more serious. To learn more, get involved, or share concerns, contact them directly.
  • Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is serious about protecting victims and punishing traffickers and buyers and we are so thankful for her. Her office presses charges once traffickers are arrested. Our message to her is that we do not want traffickers to be released on deferred adjudication (you’re guilty but we’ll let you go as long as you behave) or on low bonds (there’s probable cause to charge you but for now go free; pay this small bond or fee as insurance that you’ll return to court for future proceedings.). I’d love to see no bond so that these traffickers stay in jail. Reach her office here.
  • Harris County Criminal Court Judges play a huge role. The DA makes her recommendations but what’s next is up to the Criminal Court Judge. They need to know we care about this issue, will not tolerate traffickers and buyers not being properly punished. Look into the courts’ records – which judges on the bench are standing for children? Which are not? Contact them here.
  • Support the work of nonprofits working in this area – Crime Stoppers of Houston is doing so much as are our partners Elijah Rising, Operation Texas Shield, The Landing and so many others. One of our largest partners is Houston20 who is doing wonderful work!

Letty Serrano was a quiet, good student who loved her puppies. Her death and life being trafficked, breaks my heart. So many of you reached out to me for information on what to do now – this is a start. Please share this, discuss it and talk about it. Stand together for Letty.

Full blog can also be read via The Buzz Magazines here!

Halloween Safety

Let’s keep Halloween fun, spooky and lighthearted with costumes and decorations. What should be an enjoyable and joyous night can unfortunately turn tragic with the increased number of pedestrians on the streets. Children are twice as likely to be killed/injured by a car on Halloween than any other night of the year.

Here are some helpful tips to ensure your entire family has a funny and safe Halloween:

Have a plan before you leave. Map out where you and your students should go in case of an emergency.

As a driver, slow down and be especially alert in residential neighborhoods. Children are very excited on Halloween and may move in unpredictable ways. Drivers should anticipate heavy pedestrian traffic and turn their headlights on earlier in the day to spot children from greater distances.

Look both ways before crossing the street. Walk on sidewalks and cross the streets at corners only.

Limit your social media sharing and whereabouts for the night. Don’t overshare! Burglars have been known to take advantage of homes when they know they’re empty.

Observe all treats, and dispose of any that appear to have been opened, tampered with, or are not wrapped.
Wear fitted costumes to prevent tripping and blocked vision.

Ensure that older kids are trick-or-treating with a group of friends.

Ensure that your children carry glow sticks, flashlights, or wear reflective clothing when trick-or-treating in the dark.

Never allow children to go trick-or-treating alone or to visit a home with no lights on

Other helpful tips to keep in mind:

• Registered Sex offenders: You may have a few registered sex offenders in your neighborhood. If They should not have their front house lights on and should not be opening their door if a child knocks. Some cities host meetings for registered sex offenders on Halloween night to get them out of their house and account for them.

• Blue Halloween Buckets: blue Halloween buckets signify that the child might be non-verbal and therefore may not be capable of saying “trick-or-treat”. A mom of a non-verbal autistic child implemented this initiative to raise autism awareness.

• Food allergies: You may have kids with food allergies, the Teal Pumpkin Project encourages you to have a few non-food options available such as a small toy.

Download our Halloween Safety tips here to give to your family and friends!

10/18/19: Houstonia – Crime Stoppers Enlists Real-Life ‘Mindhunter’ for Gala Keynote

This month’s event raised $433,000 for public safety initiatives.

Just two months after Netflix released season two of its critically beloved true crime series, Mindhunter, the man behind the whole phenomenon came to Houston to discuss his groundbreaking work.

Retired FBI agent John Douglas wrote the book on criminal profiling—literally: the Netflix series is based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, the 1995 title Douglas co-authored with Mark Olshaker. Crime Stoppers of Houston secured Douglas as the highly anticipated keynote speaker at this year’s gala, and he took the stage earlier this month to recount his incredible experiences studying and interacting with the country’s most gruesome murderers.


Teen Vaping

Is there a rapid number of teens using vapes today? The answer is absolutely- yes! Many experts are diving deep into this issue to notify parents, schools and law enforcement how to properly handle this rising problem. At Crime Stoppers, the Safe School team hear from students, administrators and campus police how vaping influences teens day to day lives. This post will discuss the popularity of vaping, problems schools are facing, what chemicals teens are actually ingesting and the laws teens face when choosing to participate.

First and foremost, why is vaping to popular with youth? Vapes come in many shapes and sizes. But most teens like smaller vapes that can fit into their fist. Small vapes are easy to conceal, therefore easy to hide from parents and teachers in plain sight. The vape juice can also be flavored. There is tabaco flavored juice, as well as mango, mint, crème, fruit and cucumber to name a few. Vapes are reusable, unlike cigarettes. The nicotine levels in vapes are extremely high, therefore you can become addicted very quickly. Nicotine is the most addictive substance in the world and unfortunately students are unaware of this and chose to try vaping before making an informed decision not to. And to add to the list- vapes are easily accessible. You can buy them at gas stations, grocery stores, marts and smoke shops. You must be 21 years of age to purchase a vape in the state of Texas, but the employees at many of these stores do not ask for identification or accept fake identification.

Schools are also finding themselves in the middle of this epidemic. Students are highly addicted to vaping so they are bringing the device into the classroom. Many reports have been made of teachers seeing a rise in students asking to leave class and use the restroom, subsequently the students are caught smoking in the halls or in the bathroom. There is also clothing that students can purchase on the internet that hides the vape securely. If a student uses a vape when a teacher is writing on the board in the front of the classroom, by the time the teacher turns around the vapor/smoke has dissipated making it very hard to catch in the moment.

Once students are notified about the chemicals they inhale when vaping it might make them think twice before consuming. At Crime Stoppers, through our Substance Use Prevention presentation, we educate students on what is actually going in their body. Propylene glycol the chemical in antifreeze, vegetable glycerin the chemical in shampoo and toothpaste and Formaldehyde which is used for the preservation of animal specimens. These chemicals can cause major harm to the body. The chemicals can coat the inside of lungs making it harder and harder for people to breathe. Not only is this something to be very concerned about, but what about all the unknowns? The people using vapes today are basically an experiment to long term side effects researchers are not aware of yet.

It is illegal to purchase or obtain vapes in Texas under the age of 21. Recently, the law was that you had to be at least 18 years of age, but that changed on September 1st 2019. If you are caught with a vape on school campus that is illegal. Schools are alcohol and drug free zones, therefore breaking the student code of conduct. Schools can, in turn, punish the student however the deem necessary for the crime.

Please talk to your students about the dangers of using a vape, the potential side effects, and the legalities! We want all students in Houston to feel informed and empowered to make decision that will not affect their future opportunities. And most importantly, help keep the students safe!