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Predators go where victims are

Susan Gast - For the Journal-Constitution

Sunday, September 16, 2001


Don't let your child give out personal information on the Internet. Be careful who you talk to online.

Most parents have heard, memorized and repeated these warnings to protect their children. But what kind of information do predators seek from children? How do they operate?

Reuben Rodriguez, director of the Exploited Children Unit at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, knows.

Rodriguez oversees the center's CyberTipline (www.cybertipline.com or 1-800-843-5678), where exploitation of children can be reported. Since March 1998, the tip line has received 48,000 calls. Here, Rodriguez discusses predators and what parents can do.

q: What strategies do predators use to connect with children on the Internet?

a: Most predators have a specific preference of the type of child they want as a victim, Rodriguez said. Age, gender, race, interests --- they know who they want to locate. So they go to sites on the Internet where these children would congregate. For example, Rodriguez said, they may go to a chat room for fans of 'N Sync if they are looking for a young girl. The predators study the interests of their target group. "In most cases, they know more than the kids do about the subject," Rodriguez said.

"The predator inserts himself into conversations about that subject," Rodriguez said. Eventually, he turns the conversation from the original subject to the child --- pretending to understand his or her problems, worries, experiences. "He may say, 'I understand, my parents are the same way.'

"This is the grooming process, the seduction process. They may spend days, weeks or months grooming the child, with the ultimate goal being a meeting."

As time passes, the subjects become more intimate. The child opens up and talks to the predator, because he is "a person who understands them," Rodriguez said. "Then, later, he will tell them, 'I'm not really 14 like I told you; I'm a little bit older.' Well, a young girl may be flattered, thinking 'Here I am, a 13-year-old girl, and he's a 27-year-old, and he cares what I am thinking.' But this 27-year-old is actually a 52-year-old.

"He then will tell her he is coming to Atlanta and asks if she would meet him. He says he can't drive there but will have his uncle pick her up. Well, guess who the uncle is?"

q: What online strategies are used by predators involved in child pornography?

a: Predators use strategies similar to those mentioned above, Rodriguez said, but they also start desensitizing the child by sending them photos. The first ones may be just slightly risqué, with following ones growing more and more so.

"As an example, you and I are developing a relationship, and I send you this picture and say, 'Look at what this guy sent me.' And it may just be a child scantily dressed," Rodriguez said. "A few days later, he would send one that is more risqué, then more and more. But the child in the picture is always smiling. So the child thinks, 'Well, they are smiling or laughing, so they are enjoying themselves.' Then the photos graduate from just poses to photos of more actual victimization.

"The predator is gradually lowering the barriers of the child and then may start talking dirty to the child," Rodriguez continued. "Now, if you're the child, you're not concerned. You've shared intimate things, talked naughty, he's your friend."

q: How can parents protect their children?

a: "There are filter programs, time restrictions, access restrictions. And there are the normal precautions --- don't give out personal information, don't send pictures unless you know who you are sending them to, don't set up a meeting, and the others you hear.

"But there's no such thing as a magic bullet. You use these in concert with other things. Parents should get to know the computer, learn what chat rooms are.

"Most parents are just happy that kids are smart enough to use computers. They don't understand that when you give a child a computer, you are opening your house up to the world. It is not a toy. It is a responsibility. You don't give a child keys to a car and say go drive. You teach them the rules and how to do it safely. The same thing should be done with a computer."

Rodriguez has no comprehensive numbers to show how widespread online exploitation of children has become. "The problem is a large majority of cases go unreported," Rodriguez said. He gives two reasons.

One is that children are fearful that their parents will blame them for the contact they receive from predators and will take away their privileges on the computer or punish them. "Parents should understand that it really isn't the child's fault," Rodriguez said. "These predators are very aggressive. They stalk these children.

"Children might go to that naughty site someone told them about at school. But parents should be there to educate and help the child and develop a relationship in which the child feels he can come and tell you when something is wrong."

A second reason that predators go unreported is that children may think of them as their friend, and they don't want to report their friend.

Reporting exploitation through the center's tip line lets the center's experts take the facts to law enforcement officials, who can investigate them, Rodriguez said. He said he and his employees also help to train police on how to investigate such crimes.




© 2001 Cox Interactive Media




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