Saturday, June 28, 2008

Perverts, Predators and Porn - all just one click away from YOUR child

When my family purchased the first computer to ever be in our home in February of 1993, I had no suspicions whatsoever, of it ever becoming a vehicle for heinous criminal activity, or a tool used to lure naive and self-deluded children into dangerous and even deadly situations. It wasn't long after that computer came into my own home that a doorway into a world opened up that I never even knew existed. I've written about this before, but to make a long story short, I encountered a criminal mind online and eventually he was caught, charged on 112 criminal counts, and found guilty in a federal court of law and sentenced to prison.

During the course of the investigation into his stalking, harassment and fraud activities, the case received quite a bit of national press. It was a new thing, more and more families were just beginning to get interested in what was then called the information superhighway, and this aspect of it frightened them, and rightfully so. Even more upsetting, it was also uncovered during the 3 year long investigation (all the while he continued to harass people and threaten them, even after his first arrest was filmed live for the show Dateline) that he had repeatedly raped a teenage boy living in his home as an exchange student (and continued to do so during the course of the very well publicized investigation).

As disturbing as it was to my family the things he was doing to me (and others online) that was nothing compared to what the teenage boy was dealing with. As heartbreaking as that was, it flipped the lid off of a world that the vast majority of the population (back then) had no clue existed. Criminal investigators knew it, because they'd already been online for years at this point tracking criminals of every sort, from hackers to con men, kiddy porn collecters and producers, and all kinds of other vile things. That case took over 3 years of my life, and I was glad to finally sit in the federal courthouse in Fresno to see this man face justice. One day later, it took a jury less than 4 minutes to find him guilty as charged.

It was during that three years, that I met a Christian brother who was also a seasoned detective who specialized in fraud. Not too long before this case, he'd begun training US federal and Canadian police as well, on how to track these kinds of people online, and nail them. Unfortunately as a part of his job he often (and I do mean OFTEN) came across child porn, and all kinds of predators online - LONG before the show "To Catch a Predator" ever existed. I can tell you, what they air on that show is only a small slice of what's really out there. Or should I say, who is really out there with every intention of luring my children, your children, anyone's children into a variety of compromising and dangerous situations, with only one wicked and vile motive.

Now I'm going to stop here and say this, and I hope people REALLY hear it.

When someone says something like this, folks roll their eyes and think "yeah yeah, whatever" for several reasons. They've never run into it online, they've never known anyone that has, they almost never hear about it, etc., so on and so forth. Generally (and sadly after nearly 20 years now of it being publicly documented) folks still think you've got some kind of alarmist mentality when you mention predators online looking to lure your children away, primarily because it isn't something that they have personally experience in their own life. Well, all I can say to that is THANK GOD it has not happened to them. It has happened to plenty of people and their children, and I can only assume they were one of those families that only WISH that they didn't have such an experience. If anyone thinks this an alarmist position, you could easily contact your local FBI field office for yourself, and ask to be put in touch with the agent in charge of either the Innocent Images National Initiative, the Endangered Child Alert Program, or one of the agents in the Regional Computer Forensics Labs. Or, if that wouldn't be enough to convince you just how widespread and horrific this is, you could also check out the Dept. of Justice's Project Safe Childhood fact sheet for yourself. Here's just one item off the list:
"Since the program’s inception in 1998, the Task Forces have reviewed nearly 200,000 complaints, resulting in the arrest of almost 11,000 individuals across the country intent on sexually abusing children. In fiscal year 2007 alone, ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) investigations led to more than 2,400 arrests and more than 10,500 forensic examinations." (source)
Think about those numbers for a minute. These were sexual deviants online, looking for children to exploit. These were just the ones they caught. If you were looking for kids online, where do you think you might go? After you think about this for a few minutes, the disturbing thought SHOULD hit you, that this is exactly where these vile people are hanging out as well. In fact, they're online right now, this minute, in the very same chat rooms, social networking sites, and communities, that kids are in. Right now, this minute, as you're reading this, some of them are even chatting with kids, posing as kids themselves, and encouraging other kids to trade pics with them. And the kids fall for it, ALL the time. It generally begins as a "friendship". They become online buddies, posing as kids themselves, sending pictures of other kids and passing them off as pictures of themselves. It should make you stop and wonder for a minute, just how many of the "friends" kids have on friends lists, are actually other kids their age, and how many are actually adults with an agenda. If you've never considered this before, know that the law enforcement agents that work this field have been warning parents about this for YEARS. It's a very common tactic that these predators use.

From every source I've read in the last 10 years, this crime is on the increase, and with the ease of access (lower prices for computers, computer access in schools, libraries, 'net cafes, etc.) more and more families and children are online, and more and more children are at risk. With the amount of man power and resources being invested into this arena on the local, state and federal level, this is hardly something any responsible parent should be rolling their eyes over.

What prompted me to write this today, was this one quote from a recent case in the news:
"The girl was reported missing around 9 p.m. Wednesday after her uncle dropped her off at a convenience store about 12 hours earlier in Randolph, where she'd said she was going to meet a girlfriend to visit the friend's sick relative in the hospital. But police believe that Brooke fibbed and may have been bound for a meeting with an unknown person whom she'd been communicating with on the social networking site MySpace.com."
This came from the recent news story about the little girl in Vermont, currently missing. The next part of the article that stood out to me was this "Authorities haven't identified the person she was communicating with, but state police computer experts were analyzing the computer in a bid to learn more. They don't know if it was a woman or a man." That's just it - they don't know who this little girl was corresponding with on MySpace, and NEITHER DID SHE. She only knew whatever the person wanted her to believe and she fell for it, hook line and sinker. Now I have no inside information, and have no idea who she was meeting or how old they were, or what they wanted from her. It could have been another girl her own age, it could have been a boy, it could have been a 45 year old pedophile that had wicked intentions. Time will tell who she actually met up with, but the heartbreaking truth of the matter is, the statistics are not in this precious little girl's favor. The fact that police have recovered what they believe is some of the clothing she was last seen in, doesn't offer much hope for this poor girl.

I've read more cases like this than I can count. I've known about cases like this that never even made the national headlines. When the case is closed, it's almost never good.

In this story at FOX news, it would appear that the dad allowed the girl online and then yanked access when he discovered she was up to something she shouldn't have been. My hat is off to the dad in this case for doing that, but unfortunately she chose to disobey dad and go back online on the sneak. (I can tell you I know A LOT of families where the kids do this, and I'd bet you do too).

I read another case today on CNN.com about an ongoing investigation in Sacramento CA (in conjunction with the FBI in a project called Innocence Lost) that is attempting to crackdown on child prostitution online. Girls willingly posting their OWN ads online. Why would a girl do this, you wonder? The article answers that question:


"But why would a girl sell her body online? To help answer that question, Sacramento police made arrangements for CNN to interview a 14-year-old girl who said she'd started selling herself as a prostitute at the age of 11. "I wanted to feel loved. ... I wanted to feel important," said the teen, who did not want to be identified. She said she used Craigslist because it was free and she could post dozens of ads a day. Even though she understood the seriousness of what she was doing, she said she didn't care. You could put stuff in your ad like 'wet and wild,' 'fun and sassy,' things like that to catch their attention, to make them want you," she said."(source)
If you find all of this as overwhelming as I do, I wouldn't be surprised. It's a multifacted issue with a variety of perpetrators, victims, and sometimes, as unreal as it sounds, the victims are even the ones unwittingly setting themselves up to be victims.

Its very easy to simply say keep your kids offline. Not only is it easy, its actually the safest way to keep them from the possibility of being victimized, and/or the strong temptation (especially for girls) to show themselves off with revealing and/or sexy looking pictures & webcams because it drives visitors (and attention) to their little spot on such social networking sites as myspace or facebook. Keep your kids offline? Yeah, I'd be among the first to say that.

However, if you're not so sure that's the answer, there are a variety of ways to strictly monitor your kids if they do use the internet, and I cannot recommend them strongly enough. NO parent believes their kid is going to be the next kid in the news, so it is definitely worth your time and their safety to USE these tools if your child is online at all. Go here for a good source of tools and resources to take a look at for your family.

Get yourself educated on what's going on online, and make sure your kids are web smart as well. They're worth it.



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