The case of a Massachusetts teenager allegedly kidnapped and sexually abused by a New York couple has drawn new attention to Internet chat rooms, one of which is where the teen met the couple, police say.
In a recent survey of young Internet users aged 10 to 17, one in five reported they had received unwanted sexual solicitations online, ranging from sexually suggestive comments to strangers asking them to meet them in the real world for sex.
Nationwide, 4,500 cases were reported to police last year in which predators used chat rooms to prey on teenagers. But child advocates suspect the actual number is much higher, since most incidents are not reported to the authorities.
A profile of a new kind of sexual predator is emerging: one who is technically savvy, targeting girls between 12 and 15 — especially vulnerable girls who write openly about their problems.
"Small and lost like me" was one message the Massachusetts girl wrote. She said she wanted to run away from home.
"Unfortunately, the predators can smell a child who is vulnerable, it's like chum to a shark," said Parry Aftab, director of Cyberangels, an Internet safety organization, and author of The Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace.
You Never Know Who You're Talking to Online
The anonymity of the Internet has allowed predators to easily hide or misrepresent themselves. An online friendship can turn into a dangerous personal meeting.
"Every single case that I'm aware of and the FBI is aware of, the children have gone willingly to a meeting," said Aftab. "It's very easy to get a child to go willingly when you understand how vulnerable they are."
And why do they go?
"They've become their friends and so they feel very comfortable giving out information they would normally not give out to strangers," said Ruben Rodriguez, director of the exploited child unit of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
A 'Friend' Who Asks for Nude Pictures
After a death in the family, Texas teenager Katy Glover found a friend in a chat room. They talked online for a year, chatting almost every day. Katy was 12 when she first met her friend, who said he was 16.
"We kind of like became boyfriend and girlfriend, and eventually, he asked me to take naked pictures of myself," recalled Glover. He sent her a Polaroid camera, and she took some pictures and sent them. When her mother Shari found a letter referring to the pictures, she told the friend to stay away, but did not contact the police.
"I did think about calling the police," said Shari. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought the police wouldn't know what to do. This was so new … I rationalized that they couldn't do anything."
A year and a half later, Katy and her mother learned from Utah police that the "friend" was actually a middle-aged sexual predator who had been corresponding with a dozen other children as well. The man was eventually arrested and convicted.
Katy is now a "Teenangel," a member of a group of 13-to-17-year-old volunteers trained by Aftab's Cyberangels to teach children, parents and lawmakers about Internet safety issues.