Archive for Thursday, December 8, 2005

Online: A new frontier for danger

December 8, 2005

A seedy, methodical voice emanates from the dark shadow on screen. The man, a convicted sex offender serving prison time for indecent exposure and corruption of a minor, warns the unsuspecting how he did it.

"You need to pay attention to what your kids do -- especially on the computer," the unnamed man says. Online, he says, "you invite a world of strangers into your home, literally a world of strangers."

He continues by explaining how he "groomed" his young victims by posing as a peer and built their trust through a continued online friendship. Having established a rapport, the man would then propose a meeting.

And from there? Well, he's in prison, after all.

"I can do that. I've done that -- and believe me, there are a million people that know how to do that," he says of his new-age stalking technique. "It just becomes extremely easy for a predator to get at your kids."

The predator's interview was given to producers of "Safe Surfing," which is a DVD released through a cooperative effort by the National Sheriff's Association and the National White Collar Crime Center. The excerpt sums up the message many law enforcement officials and some parents are trying to get across to their children -- that the rules of Stranger Danger are just as important online as on the streets.

For all the benefits that the new frontier of the Internet offers -- advances in communication, research and entertainment -- it has simultaneously become a valuable tool for tech-savy criminals ranging from hate groups to sexual predators.

In short, the emergency of cyberspace has not only re-written the rules of engagement, it's re-wired them.

Who's behind the keyboard?

According to i-Safe America Inc., a non-profit foundation designed to educate and empower youth to safely and responsibly control their Internet experience, more than 70 percent of students go online at least once a week. Of those students, more than 54 percent say that they've had limited computer safety classes.

Joe Lawless, an officer with the Shawnee Police Department and a Basehor resident, dabbles in the field of Internet safety, in addition to his duties as a DARE officer in several Shawnee area elementary schools. He said by posting personal information online, children put themselves in harm's way.

"We're so worried about our kids in our own back yard, but we give them free reign on the computer to do whatever they want," Lawless said. He added, "We don't teach Internet safety -- and that's what makes kids so susceptible to danger."

He said more and more, the Internet is proving to be a target-rich environment for predators seeking innocent victims. And, Web sites such as Xanga, a popular online site for all walks of people to post diaries and journals available for anyone with a computer to see, provide the window for them to crawl through.

"(Predators) can know more about a child from what they read on Xanga than their own parents," said Lawless, who estimated roughly 80 percent of parents know little about common sites like Xanga.

From these sites, predators can take minute information such as a name and hometown and whittle away until they find more specific bits like home addresses. Also, by reviewing online journals or diaries, predators learn valuable details about children that they can later use to befriend them.

"(Students) may think they're just telling their friends," Lawless said, "but they're not thinking that anybody in the world can read this information.

"A sick individual can take that information, go to a different state, commit a crime and retreat back, because the information is out there."

Problem lies at home

Lawless points out that the problem doesn't necessarily lie with sites such as Xanga, but more so in allowing children to operate on the sites with little or no restrictions. Children aren't visiting the sites at school --districts such as Basehor-Linwood, Bonner Springs and Shawnee Mission have blocking software implemented making it impossible to access the sites from school -- but at home.

A local woman, who has asked to remain anonymous for the purpose of this story, said she was dumbstruck that her two daughters, ages 13 and 14, were using Xanga to communicate with friends. The girls were posting personal information about their activities because they believed their friends would be the only people interested.

The woman's daughters didn't realize that a wider, more nefarious circle of people could view the information, she said. After simply typing one daughter's name into a search engine, the woman said, she was shocked to learn her child's name, school and hometown could be found so easily.

"Anybody in the world can see her name, go to her Web site and see (where she lives)," the woman said.

"I don't know that (kids) realize people can go step-by-step to find them. I don't even know how many parents know their kids are doing this. I think they need to find out, if they want to protect their children."

According to i-Safe, children and parents can take steps to safeguard themselves against predators or other unsavory characters using the Internet. The foundation describes these precautionary steps as the "four Rs" and they include:

Recognize the techniques used by online predators to deceive.

Refuse requests for personal information.

Respond assertively if you are ever in an uncomfortable situation online. Exit the program, log off, turn to an adult or call the police.

Report to a trusted adult any suspicious or dangerous contact that makes you feel uncomfortable.

That the Internet is now spawning violent crimes should come as no shock. For years, law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation have listed computer crimes, such as identity theft, as the fastest-growing in the country, and many police describe the evolution from white-collar crimes to violent ones as a natural progression.

Exploitation of the Internet and users took center stage early in the decade when Olathe man John Robinson was arrested, charged and convicted of killing several women. He found and lured several of his victims using the Web and was considered by the FBI to be the first serial killer to use the Internet as a tool for his crimes.

Lawless said many police department agencies are now monitoring community sites in hopes of stopping violent crimes before they occur. Just last year, police learned of an area youth that, in his online diary, threatened to kill a teacher.

Shocking as the threat was, more appalling was that the youth -- whose parents had grounded him from computer use at the time -- was able to make the threat while under the guise of doing research for a school project.

However, though police are developing a technological IQ as lofty as the criminals they seek, the good guys cannot stop all crimes before they occur. Parents have as big a role to play as police in safeguarding children, Lawless said.

"These predators are everywhere," he said. "We know about some of them, but it's the ones we don't get, the ones we don't know about, that we have worry about."

Without supervision and minus a review of easy-to-follow instructions for safety, the Internet -- a tool of exploration, wonder and advancement -- becomes a weapon against the civilized and innocent.

"It just becomes extremely easy for a predator to get at your kids," said the convicted cyber-predator in the "Safe Surfing" DVD. "If you use that computer like a television, like a part-time parent, you're just asking for trouble."

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