On October 28, 2013, Paul S. Hines, a 73-year-old Danbury resident and a chemistry professor at Western Connecticut State University, was arrested and charged with a third-degree criminal sexual act and endangering the welfare of a child, a 15-year-old from Somers. Hines corresponded with the victim online, then met the teen—who according to Hines’ lawyer told him he was 19—at his home and engaged in sexual contact.
Sadly, this kind of news is not uncommon. According to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, one out of 25 American teens receives “aggressive” sexual solicitations—which are sexual solicitations that had an actual or attempted offline contact. Recent arrests and convictions in Westchester for such solicitations include a police officer from New Rochelle, a middle-school teacher from Pelham, and a deli manager from Yonkers.
Even more common is online contact by Internet “creepers,” people (almost always men) who use the Internet to have sexually charged conversations or to persuade, coerce, or blackmail minors into sending them sexual photos or videos, which they can sell or circulate. It’s tempting, but futile, to consider banning your kids from ever touching an electronic device again—the Internet is just another tool for an old crime. And while it may have seemed easier to police a child’s circle of contacts in the days before the Internet and social media, when our worlds were smaller, children have always been at risk.
Close to home
Westchester statistics are in line with the national average, says Westchester Assistant District Attorney Susan Brownbill-Vega. “Because of all the information access, there are adult problems for kids, who don’t have the maturity or skill sets to deal with these issues,” she says. That’s where the DA’s office comes in. As of 2013, 20 assistant district attorneys had received training to conduct workshops in schools and elsewhere to increase awareness about Internet safety—including cyber predators—among students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Brownbill-Vega estimates that she conducts about 50 of these workshops annually.
The DA’s office has been tracking down cyber predators at least since 1999, when former Westchester DA Jeanine F. Pirro instituted an Internet sting operation with undercover investigators posing as minors in chats and emails. The program continues, with arrests often taking place when the would-be perp shows up to meet the “teen” he’s been communicating with.
It’s District Attorney Janet DiFiore’s hope that the creepers are paying attention. “Every time a predator goes online or into a chat room, he should wonder if the child victim that he is trying to lure into an illegal sexual encounter is really a member of law enforcement,” she said in a January 2013 press release about the conviction of Hossam Elfeke, a Yonkers deli manager who had sexually explicit chats with an investigator he thought was a 15-year-old. “In having members of law enforcement patrolling cyberspace, they can intercede and trap a pedophile before their criminal behavior escalates into a physical sexual assault of a real child.”
Children may be contacted by creepers anywhere they have an Internet presence. Though Facebook is in the news a lot, “It’s not where [kids] live” online, according to Jennifer Cronk, a technology learning facilitator in New City, New York, and a former computer teacher in Valhalla. Teens and tweens are more likely to focus on their YouTube accounts, Twitter, Instagram, or chat, photo, or game sites (such as Minecraft). On question-game sites, such as Ask.fm, initially innocuous questions that get increasingly challenging or raunchy with each round can lure kids in. Brownbill-Vega advises parents to instruct their children to “never answer questions that make you uncomfortable; get away from it.” But kids can get pulled into doing things they’re not comfortable with—like the question games—because they don’t want to be a “quitter” or a “bad sport.”
Cronk says predators typically set their sights on potential victims who live within 20 miles, though they aren’t necessarily candid about their own location. Kids may be more likely to open up and communicate with someone they believe is in California or Kansas or somewhere far from home, feeling safe because they think there’s no chance of actually meeting. In reality, they could be pouring their hearts out to a predator who is a few miles—or a few blocks—away. “Young people are researching their own feelings, their own sexuality, and they think it’s great to have a distant sounding board,” says Brownbill-Vega. “But you’re giving that person enough information to harm you.”
Setting the trap
Kids are likely to overshare online, posting details from crushes to tantrums to disappointments to celebrations. An online friendship can develop with someone who shows interest in every grief and triumph; is there with empathy, applause, or encouragement; and even loves the exact same bands and teams. An adult predator may spend months or even years working himself thoroughly into a youth’s confidence.
A first move in strengthening the relationship may be something small, like standing up for the child in a discussion or taking the child’s side in a disputed point on a game site, says Cronk. Troubled, lonely, at-risk teens in particular may think they recognize a kindred spirit, and feel they’ve made a true friend. The wily predator will reinforce the notion that he’s the only one who understands the youngster or cares enough to protect him or her.
While teens are often much more tech-savvy than their parents, they don’t have the lifetime of experience to realize that not everyone tells the truth, or is open about their motives and goals. In time, a predator might be able to convince a child to meet or swap photos or videos. Kids are often straightforward and direct, and, in their youthful inexperience, they may think everyone else is, too. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, “creepers” are completely up front about their age, never attempting to deceive the child to gain trust. “Kids will enter into a relationship knowing how old the person is,” Cronk says. “The relationship has built to the point that the kid thinks it’s okay.”
Talk to your child—now!
Don’t wait until you think there’s a problem to talk about cyber-predators. Fran Marton, a Nyack, New York-based licensed clinical social worker, notes that positive conversations often take place while a parent and child are engaged in another activity—e.g., cooking, taking a walk or drive—since being distracted in an activity creates a more laid-back atmosphere, as opposed to a stressful “we need to have a talk” tone, for natural communication.
If there is a problem, and your child tells you about worrisome-sounding online activity, all of the experts we spoke to advise keeping a calm attitude. “The basis for dealing with the problem lies in the ability of parents and children to communicate, to keep that line open. Create such an atmosphere that when something comes up, the child can go to the parent without feeling blamed or ashamed, without fear of being admonished,” Marton says. Children “can sense your own discomfort. The parent gets anxious and the child closes up, shuts down. Half of parenting is acting; pretend you’re not upset.”
In her workshop, Brownbill-Vega poses hypothetical situations to students: For instance, she’ll ask, “Would you respond if a stranger approached you as you walked down the street?” In that case, she says, “Your guard would go up, but people let their guard down at home. It’s easy to feel safe at home talking to a stranger and giving too much information.” The bottom line? “If you wouldn’t do it in real life, don’t do it in your tech life.”
Trust But Verify
You don’t have to be the NSA or a corporation with a huge IT staff to keep an eye on how your family uses the Internet. There are relatively easy and inexpensive ways to detect which sites family members are visiting; limit access to risky ones; and view the—perhaps surprisingly extensive—info that exists online about your family.
K9 Web Protection (k9webprotection.com) is a free Internet filter and parental control software for home computers and mobile devices. Very easy to install, it blocks major bad sites, and locks and unlocks with a parental password. It’s not a total solution, but it’s great for a free program.
Net Nanny (netnanny.com) is one of the easiest filters to use, as well as one of the most established. It blocks dangerous sites, and is designed to analyze site content in context—for example, it’s supposed to permit access to information about a breast cancer charity, while barring a visit to a pornography site.
uKnowKids (uknowkids.com) reports on your children’s social-networking activities so you can monitor their social media interactions. The package includes mobile monitoring, social monitoring, and family locator tools.
MinorMonitor (defunct) is a free tool that enables parents to analyze their kids’ activities and who their friends are on Facebook (even showing how many friends they have in common with each). MinorMonitor identifies and sends alerts about dangerous activities related to bullying, hate crimes, drug use, sexual references, and more.
Bsecure Online (bsecure.com) has two main products: Family Safety for Windows and Family Safety for Mobile Browser. Family Safety for Windows has social-networking protection, online-media filtering, and parental text and email alerts. The mobile product protects iPhone/iPod touch/iPad users from accessing objectionable websites. Bsecure has categorized millions of sites and the list is updated daily, so your iPhone/iPod touch/iPad is always up to date.
Spokeo (spokeo.com), which is commonly used by private investigators, searches White Pages listings and public records and organizes the information into reports. It’s good to go into Spokeo with your kids and show them how much information about them is out there. There’s a free version that provides minimal details, and, for in-depth details on searches, Spokeo also has memberships starting at about $4 per month. —Russell Dean Vines
Top Tips for Parents
1. Know your kids’ passwords on all devices: desktop and laptop computers, iPads, phones, etc.
2. Create a strong password for yourself, and don’t share it with the kids.
3. Google your kids regularly.
4. Check the browser history of devices your kids use.
5. If possible—or realistic—restrict computer use to a common area of the house.
6. Set a curfew for going online: Collect all web-enabled devices an hour before bedtime.
7. Monitor gaming sites your kids use: There is plenty of talk about sex, drinking, and drugs, even among non-predatory adults.
8. Be alert if your child shuts down or changes screens as soon as you enter the room.
9. Set limits on who your children can “friend.”
10. Keep an eye out for packages sent to your child; if he or she suddenly has “gifts”—such as a phone or other electronic devices—find out who they’re from and verify it.
11. Talk to the parents of your child’s friends; share your concerns about web use and find out what kind of rules they have in place. Make sure that your child knows that your rules apply to online activity anywhere. —RDV
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelance writer. She has written articles for O, The Oprah Magazine; the New York Times; BobVila.com; and TheStreet.com. Her most recent article for Westchester Magazine was “How Safe Are Our Schools?” (August, 2013).
Westchester resident Russell Dean Vines is an internationally recognized computer security expert who has written more than 10 books on the subject.