Watching for predators

By David Irvin: CNJ staff writer

It’s a murky place full of sexual solicitations, false identities and a cascade of pornographic material.

According to officials at the district attorney’s office, Internet chat rooms can be a dangerous place for children, and too many parents aren’t aware their kids frequent them.

“There are parents out there who basically think the Internet is a baby sitter,” said Kevin Spears, program administrator for the district attorney’s office. “They really aren’t familiar (that) these pedophiles … (sometimes) have years of communication with their children.”

According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, one in five children are subject to unwanted sexual solicitations online. Many of these solicitations occur in Internet chat rooms, where predators may assume a false identity and work for weeks, months or years to make contact in the real world with their victim, Spears said.

District Attorney Matt Chandler said since he took office in the fall, he has seen about five cases involving Internet crimes, some dealing with child pornography. He said, however, it is difficult to produce statistics for online criminal activity and Internet predators.

“Law enforcement are just to the point now where they are tracking the criminal activity online,” he said.

Many such crimes occur in two jurisdictions: once where the predator contacts the child initially on the Web and once when actual, “offline” contact is made.

“A lot of times they will travel several states to find that child,” Chandler said. In New Mexico, the crime is called child luring, a third-degree felony.

To combat this problem, the district attorney and Freedom Communications — which includes the Clovis News Journal and Portales News-Tribune — are holding E.C.O.P (Ensuring Children’s Online Protection) seminars this week to educate parents about the dangers of online sexual predators. The purpose is to mitigate the risk to area children. There is no charge to attend.

“We are going to present those who attend the seminars with the basics of the Internet and the steps they can take to protect their children when they’re on the Internet,” Spears said. “We want to make sure they know just how consumed the Internet is by porn. It’s all over.”

Additionally, Spears said those who attend will get advice about computer programs designed specifically to restrict Internet access to children or send “red flags” to an e-mail address if a child stumbles into a murky part of the Net.

According to NetSafeKids, an online source for protecting children on the Internet, the risks on the Internet are real, but they must be measured against the usefulness of the medium.

“Not all, or even most, of the content on the Internet is sexually explicit, profane, or harassing in nature,” the Web site claims. “It’s just that those who do create and distribute such content are often highly aggressive and indiscriminate about displaying and advertising it.”

• Tuesday: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Ingram Room at Clovis-Carver Public Library

• Thursday: 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Pecos Room at Eastern New Mexico University

Some statistics found by the U.S. Department of Justice:
• Nineteen percent of young Internet users received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year.

• Five percent of the surveyed youth received a distressing sexual solicitation.

• Three percent received an aggressive solicitation involving offline contact or attempts or requests for offline contact.

• A great majority (77 percent) of the victims were 14 to 17 years old.

Source: The U.S. Department of Justice

Parents can work to minimize the chances of their children being contacted by an online predator with the following:

• Restrict the hours that kids can spend online. As a general rule, the later at night one is online, the more suspect the activity that occurs.

• Ask your child what they are doing online. Sit down with them from time to time to see what they are doing.

• Point out stories in the newspaper about cyber predators.

• Make sure your child does not give out information over the Internet that would lead a person to find your child in real life.