A chilling video released by an online prankster dramatically demonstrated how easy it can be to lure an underage girl out of her home and into the arms of a potential predator.
YouTube sensation Coby Persin released a new video on Monday that has become an instant viral hit, garnering more than 13 million views and serving as a stark reminder for parents and kids alike about the possible dangers associated with social media.
In the seven-minute video, Persin, 21, enlists the parents of three girls, ages 12, 13 and 14, in a test to see if the girls will communicate and meet him as he pretends to be a 15-year old boy who friends them on Facebook.
The parents of the girls were generally confident their daughters would not meet up with their new online “friend,” but in each case they followed through on the meeting.
Persin tells PEOPLE he was also unsure whether the girls would follow through on their plans.
“You can see it in my face in the video. I was nervous, but once they came I was shocked,” he tells PEOPLE.
In the experiment, Persin assumes a fake identity, complete with a Facebook page (now deleted) for Jason Biazzo. With the parents’ permission, he sent friend requests to each girl. Persin says he initially reached out to six girls and chose the three whom he felt were easiest to lure given their interest. He says the trio, who all live in Brooklyn, New York, were quick to text and used a lot of acronyms, like “LOL” and emoticons in conversation.
“It wasn’t that hard,” Persin says of forging a connection. “The girls just wanted someone to talk to.”
Perhaps the most shocking of the three scenarios occurs at the end of the video, when a 14-year-old girl named Jenna enters a windowless van driven by a man she was told is the 15-year-old boy’s older brother. With her parents hiding out in the back wearing ski masks, they initially grab her and momentarily give her time to think she is being abducted before revealing themselves.
A Father Speaks Out
Jenna’s father tells PEOPLE he and her mom previously tried to educate her about the dangers of social media, and were stunned when she entered the van.
“We thought pretty much we would go through the motions and absolutely no way she would respond,” says Robert, who did not disclose his last name. “We speak a lot to her so we feel we’d done our due diligence.”
His reaction when Jenna entered the van?
“I had like a sick feeling in my stomach. I thought I was going to turn into the Hulk. I thought my wife was going to lose it,” he says.
Robert and his wife learned of the experiment by responding to an ad that Persin placed on Craigslist seeking parents of kids who spend a lot of time on social media. Despite the potential risks associated with the online community bulletin board, Robert says he liked the idea.
“We knew we would be there the whole time. It wasn’t as if our daughter would be exposed privately. Plus, we were very curious to see if she would even go that far,” he says, noting that his daughter does spend much time on her phone and social websites.
Persin said the idea for the video was inspired by a story Persin saw on the news about a father whose 12-year-old daughter was abducted by a 27-year-old man. At the time, the video didn’t have many hits and he wanted to call attention to the issue.
Persin, who has a 12-year-old sister, admits the video was hard to shoot at times, including when Jenna sat down in that van.
“At the end of the video I was almost going to cry. I felt sad for this girl,” he says, “But she needed to learn a lesson and it can go way worse; this is nothing.”
Robert, meanwhile, says he deleted his daughter’s Facebook account and let her create another one. Social emails and notifications now go to a shared account that Jenna and both parents can access.
In the end, Robert says Jenna’s not the only one who learned a lesson.
“Most parents, including me, will say ‘Nah, not our kids.’ But yeah, it could be your kid,” he says. “We learned that people need to be educated. You actually have to sit down with your kid and speak to them directly.”