The not-so-long arm of the law
USA TODAY, May 1, 2007
Cyber-predators have been invading homes across the country,
so legislators have met the threat with a flurry of new laws to
deter them. Yet even in this high-tech world, parenting is still
the best way to protect a child.
By Julian Sher
Emily Vacher has seen more of the dark side of the Internet than
most people. As one of the FBI's star undercover agents who go
online posing as teenagers to nab child predators lurking on the
Web, she has arrested dozens of men.
But these days, Vacher spends a lot of time in high schools and
community forums warning teenage girls - and their parents - about
a new threat: young people tricked into producing their own porn.
Older men disguise their true identity and age on popular social
networking sites such as MySpace; they pretend to be a lonely
girl's online "boyfriend" and seduce her into sending
sexually graphic pictures they can use for their own pleasure,
for profit or for blackmail.
"It's a trend, and it's scary," says Vacher.
Indeed, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
(NCMEC) is finding that as many as 10% of children it has identified
in child pornography images are older teens who take compromising
pictures of themselves.
This new twist to Web crime should give pause to anyone who takes
too much comfort from a flurry of new proposals - from Republican
Sen. John McCain to Democrats in the Connecticut Legislature -
that promise to crack down on online predators.
Worthy as some of these efforts may be, there is simply no quick
legal or technological fix to the social problem that Internet
predators have become.
A reality check
If you're a parent who doesn't know the difference between YouTube
and Yahoo, here's a reality check: Two-thirds of teens have a
personal profile on social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster,
or Xanga. A survey by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes
Against Children Research Center showed that a third of children
ages 10-17 who use the Internet regularly had posted their real
name, phone numbers or home address.
If you don't know what your child is doing online, the predators
do. In the past three years, the Justice Department has seen nearly
a tenfold increase in what it calls "cyber enticement"
- resulting in close to 2,000 arrests. During a single week last
month, NCMEC received 268 reports of "online enticement of
children" - four times the number of weekly incidents from
a year ago.
MySpace, and the politicians, are scrambling to play catch-up.
MySpace says its staff hunts through the 7 million images and
videos that are posted every day for indecent images, and it shuts
down about 30,000 profiles of underage users each week. When the
company discovered late last year that hundreds of registered
sex offenders were brazen - and stupid - enough to post profiles
using their real names, it compiled a database of known violators
to weed them out.
But that won't stop predators from using fake names and emails.
So McCain is pushing legislation that would oblige convicted offenders
to disclose their e-mail addresses to law enforcement and make
the use of a false e-mail address a violation of probation or
That makes so much sense, it's surprising it's not on the books
already. But let's face it: It is akin to telling convicted bank
robbers out on parole that they cannot use unregistered guns in
Meanwhile, if Connecticut legislators get their way, MySpace
might turn into something more like MyParentsSpace.
A bill proposed in March by the state's attorney general, Richard
Blumenthal, would force MySpace and similar social networking
portals to verify users' ages and get parental permission before
anyone younger than 18 could post a personal profile. At least
a dozen other states are considering similar legislation.
Again, a fine idea in practice. But even if MySpace could manage
to contact all the parents, and they vetted their children's profiles,
curious or adventurous young people - and high-tech predators
- will always find a loophole.
Neither of these laws can do much about negligent parents or
predators without any criminal records. In Ohio recently, a 40-year-old
school bus driver was charged with having sex with a local 16-year-old
student. Only then was it discovered that he apparently also had
a MySpace Web page where he pretended to be a teenage boy.
In Illinois, John Wentworth - another MySpace prowler - pleaded
guilty in March to sexually abusing an underage Naperville girl.
Forget about getting parents to vet their child's Web page profile;
this girl managed to meet her assailant in her family home.
Blumenthal, himself a father of four, is wise enough to know
that, as he puts it, "parents are the first line of defense."
That's why on his website, he provides an easy guide showing parents
how to create their own profiles on MySpace and check out what
their children are doing on the Internet's playground.
Laws trailing the crimes
Everyone agrees we have to keep modernizing and adapting our
laws to catch up to the new face of crimes against children in
the 21st century. But as the FBI's Vacher points out, "No
one piece of technology or trick or tool is going to do it. It
has to be about communication between parents and the kids."
That communication is sorely lacking. In a survey by the non-profit
foundation I-SAFE, 29% of children admitted that their parents
would not approve of their Internet activities - if they knew.
It's 11 p.m. Do you know where your child is on the Web tonight?
Julian Sher is the author of Caught
in the Web: Inside the Police Hunt to Rescue Children from Online