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ON THE LAW

Warning Parents About Internet Predators

FBI agents working with Santa Monica's Rape Treatment Center offer informal safety briefings that can help protect children.

August 08, 2003|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

When FBI Special Agent Douglas Hunt launches into his presentation to teach parents how to protect their children from Internet predators, it isn't long before polite smiles give way to audible gasps and expressions of jaw-dropping disbelief.

He begins with the case of a Santa Clarita man who contacted a 13-year-old boy in an online chat room. After graduating to instant-message exchanges, the man told investigators, he began sending the boy e-mails with sexually explicit attachments.

The two eventually met in person at a local shopping center, where the boy was sexually assaulted.

Hunt also recounts the story of a Los Angeles-area man who used a telephoto lens to snap pictures of local elementary school girls in an effort to make out name tags on their book bags. He then searched for their profiles on a local Internet service provider.

The suspect was able to contact at least two of the girls.

And if that wasn't disturbing enough, the agent tells of a Santa Monica man found with child pornography, a cache of assault weapons, silencers, a pipe bomb and other evidence that showed the self-described Satanist intended to travel to Louisiana to meet another man so they could kill the man's nieces, whom he had abused sexually.

"These aren't really our success stories," said Hunt, although each of the predators was sent to prison for his crimes against children. "I say that because there were victims before we made an arrest. Our goal is to get to them before they get to children."

Los Angeles-based FBI agents working with the Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica have been holding small, informal Internet safety briefings for three years from the Westside to the Mid-City area and the San Fernando Valley.

The sessions are a real eye-opener for parents, who are educated in frank detail about such risks as sexual solicitations via e-mail, face-to-face meetings with strangers, exposure to pornographic images, and sexual harassment.

Though the examples Hunt provides have shock value, they are intended to make parents more aware and prompt them to take a more active role in their children's computer habits.

Many people are surprised at the extent to which their home computers are the equivalent of an open door through which strangers can contact and ultimately exploit their children.

"We feel that when our children are under our roof, we are able to protect them," said Cece Karz, a member of the support council with the nonprofit Rape Treatment Center of Santa Monica who recently hosted an information session at her Brentwood home. "The reality is that just as the Internet gives us access to the world, it also gives the world access to us. And increasingly, that includes our children."

A survey of computer use by children in 2000 found that 45% of teenagers had online profiles, yet only 17% of parents knew their kids had them. More than 80% of kids had private e-mail accounts, but only 68% of parents were aware of that.

Worse yet, a 2001 survey of 1,501 children between the ages of 10 and 17 by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire reported that almost one in five respondents had received an unwanted sexual solicitation. Of those, 97% came from strangers and 25% were directed at children under 13.

Meanwhile, between 1996 and mid-2002, federal agents and local law enforcement saw a nearly 2,000% jump in the number of cyber-related child porn and child exploitation cases, from 113 to 2,370 nationally, according to FBI statistics.

And experts say the problems will continue to accelerate as the number of computers accessible to children grows in homes, schools and libraries. Other studies are in the works.

Rape Treatment Center Director Gail Abarbanel says the solutions lie in the relationship between parents and children and in parents' participation in their child's online activities.

That means it's imperative for parents to be conversant in the language of their children, and their kids' computers.

The Internet seminar shows how predators troll for children in chat rooms where the topics innocently can include video games or their favorite music.

To minimize risks, experts suggest that parents lay down clear rules for their children when it comes to online use, keep Internet-accessible computers in a family room or other public place, avoid registering for products or services that request personal information about children, and install filtering software or extra controls made available by providers such as Earthlink, AOL and Microsoft.

Lorii Strauss, a social worker with the Rape Treatment Center who also counsels children about the dangers of Internet predators, suggests advising children not to respond to sexually explicit e-mail and to report threats or sexually charged content to your Internet provider.

She cautions parents to discuss with their children what is expected of them if they encounter sexually explicit content.

"It's very important to talk with your children about what your expectations are when they run into violent or sexually explicit content on the Internet," Strauss said. "Do you expect them to discuss with you what they've seen or found? To print out a copy? Or do you expect them to shut down the computer altogether?"

She also suggests that while in chat rooms, children use age-appropriate nicknames rather than their names. They should be advised against revealing any personal information because it invites strangers to exploit a child's vulnerabilities.

It's also crucial that parents understand the technology their kids are using and the language they use to communicate in cyberspace, Strauss said.

"It's hard to talk with children about chat rooms when you don't understand them and the activity that takes place there," she said.

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