Avoiding Internet predators

Many parents today find themselves searching for ways to keep their children safe while exploring the Web.

A seminar held at the Columbus Police Training Academy on Hague Avenue June 12 explained just that.

"Most of the cases on ‘Dateline’ are thrown out for the way they do things," said Lieutenant Jeff Gaylor with the Westerville Division of Police, referring to the show’s popular segment, "To Catch a Predator" "What they do is very close to entrapment and they’re paying the price for that now with the lawsuits.

"As for the charges against the offenders, in Texas, the courts dismissed every one of those," he added.

The Westerville Division of Police has a way of making sexual deviancy charges stick.

Members of the department’s Internet Crimes Enforcement (ICE) Team conducted the seminar, held on the Westside of Columbus.

"What we do is not entrapment," said Gaylor. "We don’t initiate the contact, the sexual predator does."

In 2004, the Westerville Police created the ICE Team, made up of four officers who do the investigations part-time and have managed to arrest 60 offenders, even some who come out of state from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas, to name a few.

"That just goes to prove that there are no limitations to just how far these offenders are willing to drive to meet the kids."

As a part of ICE, Gaylor and other Westerville police officers travel the state giving seminars to law enforcement agencies. The public is also invited to these seminars to hear about what can go on while children are online, and what parents can do if their child is sexually preyed upon.

Gaylor talked about how little time it takes for children to be propositioned online.

"Within a few minutes, someone will send us a photo of them naked.

"When we’re trying to catch these offenders, we don’t go any place that a child couldn’t go," he said. "We go to the same chat rooms and popular Web sites that they are allowed to go to."

He mentioned the popular social networking site, MySpace, which boasts over one hundred million profiles.

"A lot of these teens don’t get the fact that someone other than their friends are looking at their page."

Even though some profiles are set to private, Gaylor said 69 percent of teens regularly receive personal messages online from someone they do not know, and 31 percent of those say they usually respond and chat with them.

"The goal of an Internet predator is not to have online conversations with them; the goal is to get them to come out of the safety of their homes and meet them in person," said Gaylor.

Gaylor played for the audience a phone conversation from an Ohio man who wanted to be called "Daddy." He was unknowingly talking to Federal Bureau of Investigation Cyber Crimes Task Force Officer for Westerville, Brett Peachey. Peachy used a voice modulator to make him sound like a young girl.

In the conversation, "Daddy" looked at her online profile, called her pretty, and offered to take her out shopping.

"This is what we call the grooming process," Gaylor said. "He compliments her because she’s young and probably wants to hear that, then offers to take her shopping because as he is older, he can afford to buy her things."

In the conversation, "Daddy" moved on to other possible targets, as well. While looking at the girl’s profile, he mentioned her friends "Brooke" and "Stacey" and inquired about then.

"It’s unbelievable," Gaylor said. "He’s working on his next victim from the one he’s got now."

Peachey stated that if your child is sexually solicited online, they are the victim of a crime.

"Many children don’t tell their parents if they are sexually solicited because they are afraid you’ll get mad at them or take their computers away," he said. "We need to talk to these kids about what it is that’s really going on."

What to do

In 1998, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched the CyberTipline, a reporting mechanism for cases of child sexual exploitation, including child pornography, online enticement of children for sexual acts, molestation of children outside the family, child victims of prostitution and unsolicited obscene material sent to a child.

You can report cases 24 hours a day, seven days a week to hotline 1-800-843-5678 or at the Web site www.cybertipline.com. You can also report the cases with your local law enforcement agencies.

There are also many resources to protect your children from online predators, including Web sites such as www.familywatchdog.us, www.netsmartz.org and www.computercop.com, where you can order your own parental monitoring software.

"Computer cop is keystroke monitoring software," Gaylor said. "There are more than 1,000 red-flagged words in the built in dictionary, and you can even add your own.

"It will grab whatever those words were, and you can use the disc later and see if your child is encountering these words."

Punishment for predators

"The sentence for online offenders is not quite what it should be," Gaylor said. "They’ll be charged with importuning, which means two years probation, forfeit of the computer and registering as a sexually oriented offender for 10 years, but they don’t serve any long term jail time."

Recently, lawmakers are pushing for Senate Bill 183, which would create mandatory penalties for online importuning.

For the first offense, the bill mandates one year in prison if the victim is younger than 13 or six months if the victim is 13 or older.

For repeat offenses, the bill mandates two years in prison if the victim is younger than 13, and one year if the victim is 13 or older.

"This is a behavior that cannot be fixed," Gaylor said. "It’s sort of like alcoholism. It can be controlled, but it can’t be fixed."

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