SIKESTON -- Children and teenagers who use instant messaging programs such as AOL, Yahoo or MSN; or social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Xanga should remember to keep their personal information private. If not, they could set themselves up for danger.
Three men were recently charged in Scott County for enticing children under 14 (who were actually personnel posing from the Department of Public Safety) in Internet chatrooms. "We're just presenting ourselves as children to enlighten the parents (about what is occurring in the area)," DPS Capt. Mark Crocker said.
Parents may be shocked to find out what can go on online. In a day and age when the Internet is used as a "babysitter" for children, especially during the summer, it's a good idea for parents to be aware of what's going on and discuss it with their child, Crocker said.
According to a recent poll by Common Sense Media, parents do have a lot of worries concerning their kids' Internet usage. The greatest concern (80 percent) was that of sexual predators. Yet, parents didn't view this activity as probable, with only 39 percent saying they thought it was likely to happen to their kids.
But recent activities show it is possible for anyone, anywhere. Crocker and Paul Boyd, prosecutor for Scott County, offered some tips for children and their parents to remember based on their experiences at home and in the recent undercover operation.
Boyd recommended parents look at the history on their Internet or buy software programs which track the activity of their children. Different types of software will allow parents to check on the computer or even receive e-mail updates of their children's online activities.
Spector Pro and eBlaster, two popular types of software, claim they are simple to use and will track usage from sites likes myspace.com, or chat conversations from various programs.
"Keep it to where (children) are in under-18 chatrooms," Crocker suggested. He said that DPS operated in the chatrooms that require users to be 18, but it is easy for one to lie, since there is no verification, he noted. He also advised parents to govern their children's profiles, the sections where users enter personal information on the sites.
Boyd echoed that sentiment, warning "do not post personal pictures of yourself." He also said to keep one's identity private, and not answer the popular question "ALS" -- age, location, sex.
Most importantly, Boyd said to talk to children about concerns. "Express what dangers are out there," he said.
And if anyone believes their child is being contacted by adults, they should call their local law enforcement agency or Boyd, who will direct them to the proper agency.
To prepare for the cases, DPS and Boyd referred to Web sites that show how predators look for a child's weaknesses, such as being lonely. For instance www.pervertedjustice.com posts instant messenger conversations, along with commentaries. The Web site recruits volunteers who go into chatrooms and pose as underage children, waiting for predators to instigate conversation with them.
The site also provides tips for parents and children, with special pages to read with kids and teens.
There are other resources for parents and children, too. Common Sense Media's site, www.commonsense.com, has recently launched an "Internet Safe and Smart" campaign, which will feature public service ads and offer free survival guides.
NBC's popular Dateline series "To Catch a Predator," where correspondent Chris Hansen accompanied posers who have arranged to meet with older men, has done both good and bad things for the fight against Internet sex predators, Boyd said.
The information and attention is helping parents to protect their children. "It's good for getting the message out," Boyd said.
The series also helped deter would-be enticers. "It actually slowed down a bit for us with all the publicity," Crocker said of chat room activity recently conducted by the DPS. In fact, the buzz led to the question "are you the police?" in several conversations.
On the other hand, the series exposed some investigative tactics of law enforcement agencies. "It's making people smarter," Boyd said. Now, agencies are having to change their techniques a bit, to adjust to Dateline's findings.