An experiment conducted by the Louisiana Attorney General’s office revealed how easy it is for cyber-predators to infiltrate a young person’s world.
In the experiment, a fictitious profile of a teen was concocted and sent out as a Facebook friend request to 100 people ages 13 to 16.
Despite the fact that this “person” was a complete stranger to the teens who received the friend request, all but six of the 100 young people readily accepted the “friend” into their inner circle.
“Our predators have gone online because where have our kids gone? Online,” said Lisa Koprowski, an investigator with the Attorney General’s High Tech Crime Unit who examines Internet-related crimes against children. “When we were growing up, we were told to watch for the guy in the trench coat, the man passing out the free candy. Our kids aren’t in the parks anymore; they’re on the Internet, so that’s where the bad guys have gone.”
St. Anthony of Padua School invited Koprowski to its campus Jan. 18 to remind both students and parents how seriously they should be taking the privilege of using the Internet, cell phones and other powerful new media.
Anonymity is powerful tool
Although the Internet is a wonderful tool, Koprowski reminded parents that it has given child predators the “Three As” – access, anonymity and acceptance – that enable them to stalk and befriend children with relative ease.
“Unless you know somebody in real life, you just don’t know who they are on the Internet,” said Koprowski, driving her point home with chilling statistics and case after case of children who were befriended online by adults masquerading as members of their peer group, and who were subsequently raped and murdered by their aggressors.
Just a few pieces of information – a date of birth, a hometown or even the mascot of a child’s school – can help a pedophile zero in on the location of a child’s home and generate a street view of his or her residence.
One popular tactic used by male predators is to seek out single mothers online, knowing that once trust is established, they will be called on to babysit the children.
Koprowski noted that 1 in 7 children have received a sexual solicitation online, while 25 percent of children on the Internet have been asked to meet face to face with someone they have met online.
“Fourteen percent of children did meet face to face with someone they met online,” Koprowski said, noting that the texting shorthand “LMIRL” (Let’s meet in real life) is a red flag with which parents should be acquainted.
Photos contain GPS data
Making it even easier for predators to prey on potential victims is the size and portability of smart phones, Koprowski said. Images emailed between these GPS-equipped phones contain “metadata” that can tell predators the exact latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken.
Koprowski’s presentation, a less graphic version of one that was presented earlier in the day to St. Anthony of Padua students in fifth through seventh grade, gave some additional unsettling statistics. Of the more than 1.6 billion websites on the Internet, 14 million contain images of child sexual abuse, said the investigator, showing her audience censored Internet images of children as young as babies and toddlers in sexually explicit positions.
Because child pornography and prostitution are not illegal worldwide, there is no way to completely police such sites. In Louisiana alone, thousands of images of child pornography are downloaded, many by parents hoping to profit through the human trafficking of their children.
Koprowski said 70 to 90 percent of sexually abused children are acquainted with their abusers, who come from all walks of life and are not limited to “the guy in the trench coat.”
“I’ve arrested doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, firefighters – you name it,” Koprowski said, noting that the images are “traded like baseball cards” between pedophiles.
Be there for your children
Sadly, it takes children an average of seven times to convince a trusted relative that he or she is being abused by an adult. “So when a child says ‘this is happening to me,’ more than likely it is,” Koprowski said, offering parents the following Internet safety tips:
➤ Learn everything you can about computers and the Internet. “If your kids are on Facebook, learn about Facebook; if your kids are on Twitter, learn how to tweet, so you know what to look for.” If you don’t understand how to access social media, ask your children to demonstrate them for you.
➤ Place the computer in a well-trafficked area of the home. “We are still waiting to hear a legitimate reason why a child’s computer must be in the bedroom,” Koprowski said.
➤ Young Facebook users wear the number of “friends” they have collected as badges of honor, so parents must continually urge their children to accept only those people whom they have met face to face, and to put their privacy controls on the highest setting.
➤ It is unnecessary to divulge detailed personal information when completing your profile on a social networking site.
➤ Keep a record of each child’s screen name and password handy in the event investigators need to research his or her online activity if the child goes missing. Because the child owns this information, investigators must get a subpoena to gain access, which wastes precious time in missing children cases. Koprowski suggests having the child place his screen name and password in a sealed envelope. The envelope should be placed in a location where it can be readily accessed in emergency situations.
➤ To avoid the above scenario, parents can maintain ownership of their master Internet account and ask their Internet provider to create an email account for their child. However, be aware that children commonly and secretly set up additional email accounts on their own.
➤ Many types of filtering software are available that can capture screen shots of a computer’s activity, email the adult when a specific search term is used, and even document every keystroke made by the child on his computer. Some phones also give parents the ability to turn their children’s phones into “cricket phones” – those that can only dial only 911 and selected emergency contacts.
➤ Finally, remind your child that once something is on the Internet, it’s out there forever. Appeal to your child’s pragmatic side by letting him know that university admission offices and employers increasingly are pre-screening candidates based on their past Internet activity. For example, the B-student whose electronic trail shows him to be an active volunteer and generally positive in his interactions will always have the edge over the straight-A student who always seems to be partying, gossiping and sleeping in, Koprowski said.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.