Police: Crimes Against Children Escalating Online

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The New York Sun

As use of social networking and dating Web sites escalates across the country, police in the city and state are watching the incidence of Internet crimes rise at an ever swifter pace, law enforcement officials said this week.

“Our caseload is increasing,” a spokesman for the New York Police Department, Jason Post, said. “It’s definitely the case that people are still putting up too much of their personal information on these Web sites.”

Children are being targeted by pedophiles, teenagers are being duped into giving away compromising photos and information, and ordinary Internet users are having their identities stolen without leaving the safety of their own homes, officials said.

Police are responding with an education campaign that is targeting not just children in their schools, but parents at home and in the workplace. The companies that run these Web sites, including MySpace, Facebook.com, and Friendster, are also responding with their own set of security precautions built into their systems.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is sending the New York State police more than 1,000 tips a year about criminals contacting residents. The head of the state’s Computer Crime Squad, Lieutenant Ron Stevens, said those are just the encounters that are reported.

“We’re definitely seeing the social networking problem,” Lieutenant Stevens said. “Young kids aren’t intimidated by technology. They think their blog is available only to them and their friends. The problem is the friend they have online; they’ve never met them before. He can be a she. She can be a he. Thirteen years old can be 30.”

A civilian group committed to finding pedophiles on the Internet, Perverted Justice, conducted sting operations that led to three major convictions of predators in the New York City metropolitan area alone, including a city firefighter who tried to seduce a 12-year-old girl and a fresh-water fishing boat captain who tried to convince a 13-year-old boy to have sex with him.

Going by the screen name banditcap71, Ron Rivera, who was then a 34-year-old fisherman, trolled Web sites looking for young boys. A Perverted Justice investigator pretending to be a 13-year-old in Queens caught his attention.

“Im serious about wanting a boyfriend like you Luke,” banditcap71 wrote.

“really,” the investigator wrote back under the screen name Torpedo Dorito.

In the transcript of their conversation, Rivera continues plying him with compliments and promises, telling him, “I’m available to you*/I would love you for real without games.”

Much of the “grooming” process, the part where the predator gains the victim’s trust, takes place in chat rooms or through instant messenger. But NYPD investigators said a predator can use the social-networking sites to discover details about the victim: their interests, friends, and where they live or what their phone number is. Even people who think they are being cautious by just putting up their first name are at risk because someone can piece together clues about them from posts on their friend’s sites.

“Once you have first name, last name, date of birth, you’re off to the races,” an NYPD police source who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record said.

Internet use has increased to 82.5 million households in 2006 from 60.5 million in 2000, according to a technology research firm, Forrester Research. Law enforcement’s response has been commensurate, officials said: In 1998, there were 10 task forces for Internet crimes against children. Now there are 46 task forces, Lieutenant Stevens said.

“The dangers that our families face is not necessarily in their front yards, but directly in their homes,” the state’s director of criminal justice, Chancey Parker, said in an interview. This has led city and state agencies to pursue an aggressive educational campaign aimed at children and parents. So far, about 400 parents have been taught about Internet safety in 14 courses, including one in Jamaica, Queens.

MySpace.com, which has more hits a day than Yahoo.com, according to a recent report, yesterday launched a new initiative and Web site with Common Sense Media and Kiefer Sutherland from the television show “24” to help get information about Internet safety to children and parents. Other Web sites, like Xanga.com, and Facebook.com, have implemented their own sophisticated systems of flagging and ratings to keep users safe.

The New York Sun

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