Cyber-predators target Hancock Co.ís children
By Dwayne Bremer
Mar 28, 2014, 18:33
Allen and other officials speak to students at Hancock Middle School on Thursday about the dangers of social media, chat sites, and adults who want to take advantage of them.
For many adults, the internet and social media sites are a fun way to keep up with friends, check the news, and share pictures and stories about their families and lives.
For teens, however, the internet, social media, and chat applications for cell phones have become staples in their daily lives, but are filled with dangers lurking behind every click of a mouse.
"Technology is the new frontier in crime," District Attorney Joel Smith said last week. "Fifteen years ago, it was no big deal. Today, it is like the Wild West. Too often, parents do not have a recognition of what technology is putting in the palm of their children's hands. We used to worry about what television shows our children watch. Today, they have the world at their fingertips."
In the past five years, internet-based crimes have skyrocketed across the country, Smith said.
Jean Vaughn with the Mississippi Attorney General's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force said last week that her office received more than 1,000 complaints of child-related cyber-crimes, resulting in 118, arrests last year alone.
The list of crimes includes--but is not limited to--possession and manufacture of child porn, enticing children to send lewd photos or even meet for sex, "Sexting," and cyber-bullying.
Smith said the proliferation of cyber-crimes is one of his office's "top priorities," but it will take a combined effort from both law enforcement and families to curb the growing trend.
"Parental awareness is the biggest key," Smith said. "The first step is for parents to understand what their children are doing and try to limit the dangers."
Larry Smith, a former college psychology professor at Pearl River Community College, said last week that it's easy to understand why the internet, social media, and cell phone apps, have become so popular with youths.
"For most of them, it is their first taste of freedom," Smith said. "In the pre-teen years, children are in a questioning and exploring stage. Technology provides them with anonymity to solicit any information they may want.
The pre-teen years are also an important time in a child's identities building stage, Smith said.
Traditionally, children build friendships and their identities through interaction with other children, school, and values learned from their parents, Smith said.
Today's technology, however, offers them a quicker and easier way to try to fit in to social circles than traditional means, he said.
"It can help build a teens identity, but it also can cause them to become more secretive and isolated," he said. "This is especially true with children who are socially inept or socially awkward. They are usually the first ones to reach out on social media."
While many parents may monitor their children's access to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, the number of sites children are on can be "limitless," Waveland Police Chief David Allen said.
"There are literally too many sites and apps to count, many of which parents have never heard of," Allen said. "As soon as parents find out about one, the kids switch to another."
One example of cell phone applications is "Kik Messenger," Allen said.
Kik Messenger is an app which allows users to have instant message conversations, much like instant message sites on Yahoo and Facebook.
Allen said the reason why Kik Messenger has become more popular among children is because many adults are not on it.
"It's their thing," Allen said. "They can access it on their phones and mom and dad generally don't know about it."
The application SnapChat is of particular concern, Allen said.
"SnapChat allows you to send a photo which will erase itself within a set time period," Allen said. "You can send a photo and, 10 seconds later, it will be gone. Now, why on earth would you want to send a self-destructing photo? We suspect there are a lot of improper photos flying around."
Last month's arrest of a Kiln man who allegedly created several social media profiles of teens to attempt to solicit nude photos from young girls has sent a shock-wave through the community and local law-enforcement departments.
Allen said the internet provides potential pedophiles with new tools to try to take advantage of children.
"It is very scary when you think about it," Allen said. "Sexual predators now have easier access to children. These criminals are becoming very creative in how they operate. We always have told our kids not to talk to strangers, but it's a little different with the internet. The internet gives kids a false layer of security and the predators can take advantage of that."
A different culture:
Allen said one of the biggest battles in crimes such as "Sexting" is the current culture among youths.
"In many cases, pre-teens learn certain behavior from their older brothers and sisters," he said. "To many kids, sending nude photos is not only acceptable behavior, but it is expected."
Professor Smith agreed, saying that there are obvious signs of pop culture's effects on today's teens.
"Many teens do not think it is a big deal to send photos of themselves to other teens," he said. "Today's culture is very foreign to many adults."
Allen said in many cases, children are more afraid of their parents and/or the police than sending nude photos of themselves.
"In last month's case, the suspect told the girls that if they did not send more photos, he was going to tell their parents," Allen said. "That was enough to keep them sending photos."
Law enforcement agencies have spent a considerable amount of time and money in the past few years trying to catch up with cyber criminals.
Vaughn said Mississippi is ahead of many states because it took a proactive approach to the problem.
The Attorney General's task force receives grants through the U.S. Department of Justice for specialized equipment and educational programs.
Last year, the AG's office sponsored educational programs which reached more than 24,000 students, teachers, law enforcement officers and residents, she said.
Allen has been conducting classes at various local schools for the past two years, including one Thursday at Hancock Middle School.
Allen said that no matter what happens on a computer or cell phone, law enforcement officials now have the capability of retrieving data.
"Computer forensics is much like fingerprints," Allen said. "We are teaching more digital evidence courses to law enforcement and we are getting the latest equipment. I think we are finally starting to catch up."
It all starts at home:
Allen said that no matter how many tools law enforcement has to catch cyber criminals, the most effective way to keep children safe is through parental awareness.
"Fighting cyber crimes is usually reactive," he said. "We usually don't get involved unless there is a complaint. Parents need to be aware of what their children are doing. If you give your child a phone, then check it. If there is an app which requires a password, then you need to have a talk with them."
Allen said the Gulf Coast Cyber Crime Unit, of which he is a member, is made up of about a dozen law enforcement agencies on the Coast.
He said the group will be doing more community outreach and education soon in an attempt to bring more attention to cyber crimes.
District attorney Smith said it's everyone's job to protect children.
"Children need to understand that the police and adults are here to protect them," he said. "Protection of children is our biggest priority here at the District Attorney's Office. There is a misconception that internet crimes are 'victimless', that cannot be further from the truth."