By B.C. Manion
It may not look dangerous, but the laptop in your child’s bedroom, or the cell phone she carries, can become a source of danger.
That’s the message a trio of detectives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office took to a Jan. 23 evening forum at Gaither High School, 16200 N. Dale Mabry Highway.
Technology is pervasive.
“It’s (technology) embraced by society and offenders. You can go anywhere, any place, by a click of a mouse in a couple of seconds,” said Detective Phil Dubord, who specializes in cyber crimes for the sheriff’s special investigations division.
Sexting – which involves peers emailing each other sexual images – may seem harmless to some, but those images are memorialized and can end up anywhere, Dubord said.
“Ninety-seven percent of the problems are high school (students) but we’re starting to see a rise in middle school,” said Detective Chris Heaverin.
In one case, an 11-year-old girl was suspended at Webb Middle School for sexting. The boy receiving the sexual image was suspended, as well. He had asked for the picture.
Sexting has become a bigger issue since the advent of telephones equipped with the Internet and cameras, Dubord said. And now, kids as young as 8 years old are taking sexual pictures of themselves and emailing them, he said. A few weeks ago, the sheriff’s office called some parents in to show them photographs of genitals their sons had sexted to others.
Technology has given sexual predators the opportunity to amass huge collections of child pornography and to create pornography, Dubord said. They’ll take photos from websites of cheerleaders, for instance, and morph the heads onto naked bodies.
Some pedophiles and sexual predators are on the registry of sexual offenders; others are not.
“They may live next door to you. You don’t know. They may work with you. You don’t know,” Dubord said. “They look normal. They act normal. Never in a million years would you think they’d want to look at a 3-year-old being raped.”
Parents can’t be too careful. They should keep the computers in their home in a common area, where they can easily supervise what their children are doing, Dubord suggested and take advantage of software to track how children use their computer and cell phone.
“We’re having a lot of problems with children using it (technology), unsupervised. Don’t let it be a babysitter,” Dubord said.
Parents need to protect their children, Dubord said. That means searching their bedrooms and tracking their computer use.
“Children have plenty of friends – be the parent, first,” Dubord said.
Predators love it when parents don’t pay attention. They often lure victims into online relationships by posing as someone close to the victim’s age, he said, citing a case of a 15-year-old girl planning to meet a much older predator.
Detective Peggy Grow has worked undercover cases.
In one case, she was chatting online with a predator who thought she was a little girl and asked her to send him her underwear. She bought a little pair and sent it. When Texas authorities raided the man’s home, they found piles of panties sent by other little girls.
Pedophiles go where children like to be, including children’s websites.
“Children are easily manipulated online,” Dubord said. “A kid’s first instinct is to be trusting.”
Online sexual predators seek children in chat rooms, on social networking sites and on gaming sites, Dubord said. Social networking sites can provide useful information and enticing photographs for sexual predators, the detective added.
When predators seek potential victims online, they assume false personas and use ploys to build relationships, sometimes being very subtle, Grow said. If they ask a child where he lives and the child balks, they back off and use another approach, gradually piecing together the information they seek.
In one case, an 11-year-old boy was playing a war game and another gamer asked him: “Do you have hair down there?” Dubord said.
The boy wisely alerted his father.
Girls tend to become emotionally attached, Grow said. They get involved in an online friendship and think they have a boyfriend. They’ll tell investigators “we’re dating” when all interactions have been online.
Boys tend to be more experimental and less emotional, Dubord added.
Cyber bullying presents another danger, Dubord said.
“It’s kind of a mob mentality on the Internet,” he said.
“Adults are often unaware of the bullying,” he said. Children may not tell them because they fear retaliation or are afraid they won’t be taken seriously, he said.
There are signs that parents can watch for. If a child is sad, depressed, anxious or afraid, especially after being on a cell phone or a computer, cyber bullying may be happening, he said. Or, if they don’t want to leave home or hang out with friends, those could be signs, too.
“It gets to a point where kids don’t want to go to school,” Dubord said.
Or, it can have far worse consequences.
“Children have killed each other and committed suicide after being involved in cyber bullying,” he said.
Helpful sites to stay safe online
Some suggestions from Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Detective Phil Dubord:
–Do not give out personal information
–Do not respond to unsolicited emails and instant messages
–Do not give out passwords or personal accounts
–Do not meet someone in person that you met online