Digital kids in danger

Children are more vulnerable than ever to predatory grooming via portable multimedia devices


     In the time since John was tried and sentenced in 2003, the trends in technology and predation have adapted to include cell phones, which more directly link child predators to their prey. Similar to John's methods of trust building and doting, only six years after Canton's case, predators today are utilizing phones to their benefit.

     Confirming this most recent trend are nationally reported cases of adults using cell phones to groom kids, such as the Pennsylvania case where phy-ed teacher Beth Ann Chester is accused of transmitting explicit text messages and photos, which culminated with the 26-year-old teacher allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old student. In Nebraska, another teacher was accused of having sex with a former student, who was 13. In Washington, a sports coach pleaded guilty in February to charges that resulted from exchanging explicit pictures with a student. Brown, a 21-year veteran of the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department, has spent eight years in the sex crimes division of Orange County's Family Protection unit. He believes that as cell phones get more sophisticated, they are to become equally as dangerous as computers on the Internet — in fact, potentially more so than computers.

     "Over the last few years, the technology with cell phones has come up so much and the capabilities mimic computers" Brown says. "In my era, the phone was in the kitchen on a cord, and if you were on the phone, someone would know. Now [kids'] cell phones are in their rooms and most parents don't realize what their kids do and who they talk to either online or on the cell phone."

Dealing with Mom and Dad

     "The hardest thing, I have to do, hands down, is deal with parents," Brown says. "I can't really blame a victims' parents. People say, 'We'll put the computer in a common location.' That just doesn't work. We've proved that many, many times." Brown explains that when parents put the computer in a common location, it creates a false sense of security. And when mobile communication devices are added to the mix, Lotter and Brown say that without software intervention, parents won't be able to adequately protect their kids.

     "Cell phones just increase availability. Kids can talk to people online without their parents knowing," Canton warns. "It takes away a lot of parental control. Parents can put the computer in a certain room, they can limit the hours, they can check up on them, but kids can be up all night on their cell phone."

     Brown, who also gives presentations on Internet safety in his community and teaches sex crimes at the Orange County Sheriff's Academy, says the only way to safeguard children and prevent predatory harm is monitoring their activities with software like eBlaster by SpectorSoft for computer monitoring and eAgency's Radar for cell phones.

Policing today's cell crimes

     Brown sees the results of cell phone use in his office every day. But for an agency of 2,500-sworn-officers strong, coming across high-tech crimes isn't all that surprising. However, with the increasing popularity of cell phones and their capabilities, Brown only sees the frequency of cell-based crimes rising.

     "I would say that if [agencies] don't address [cell phone crime] now, they need to, because it's certainly not going away," Brown suggests. "[Phones] are just getting more and more sophisticated. And sooner or later —probably sooner — [police departments] will be addressing crimes that were either made or furthered with a cell phone.

     (See "Forensic solutions for cell phones" on Page 14 for information on data extraction devices.)

     Experts agree that until cell phones are addressed as a danger to the digital-age kid, they will remain susceptible to predatory grooming via mobile phones. And whether or not law enforcement or parents realize it, cell phones have become the predator's solution to problems with grooming in the Internet medium.

     Nelson warns, "The cell phone is seen as a window that's open. While the front door may be locked, there's a way around it to the side window."

How I met a predator
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