Speaker: Internet is not a baby sitter

The Internet is no substitute for a baby sitter, an FBI agent warned a group of parents at Douglas High School's Media Center last week.

"The Internet is not a baby sitter," said FBI Special Agent Anna Koehler.

"It's so awful and it's happening right here. The people we're arresting are everywhere. We've arrested them in parks, in your grocery stores."

Koehler was invited to speak to parents Thursday night about the dangers children may encounter while they use the Internet.

"The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, started by John Walsh, said that one in five kids are victimized on the Internet," Koehler said.

Koehler, 36, works in Reno for the FBI in the Innocent Images National Initiative. Part of her job as investigator is to pose as a teenager on popular networking Web sites frequented by people who prey on children.

Koehler said within three minutes of chatting with a predator online, he had asked her if she was single, if she was a virgin and if she would have sex with him. All this was enough to get the man arrested by the FBI. There is a five-year minimum sentence for this federal crime.

Koehler said young people being victimized on Web sites has to do with the technology involving Internet use and that digital imaging is rapidly embraced by offenders. There's no need for expensive equipment - all it takes is a computer.

The "collections" of pornographic pictures are easily passed around on the Web.

"Once your photo is on the Web, you can never get it back," Koehler said.

Child pornography is widely available. Children working on a homework project might accidentally pull up a porn site.

"Your kid might be doing an assignment on the White House, and when he types in 'whitehouse.com.,'" something inappropriate will appear and a child could get deeper into the site the more buttons he or she pushes, she said.

Cyberspace provides an ideal platform for reoccurring victimization with images easy to reproduce digitally, Koehler said.

"The bad guys don't think there's anything wrong with sex with kids."

The typical offender is a white male, 25-45 years old who usually works in a professional capacity. They are involved in youth sports, scouting or other children's activities.

The typical victims are females in their early to mid-teens who are often in love with the offender. Boys may be victims but rarely report crimes because of the stigma attached with same-sex crime.

The victims could be from dysfunctional families but very often are young people discovering their own sexuality.

Mostly, Koehler said, the victims have unsupervised access to a computer.

The FBI agents employed in the 26 national offices of the Innocent Images National Initiative strive to provide appropriate police training and raise public awareness.

Part of Koehler's job is to investigate "traveler cases," which involve offenders who travel to meet underage children they meet online or who pay children to travel to meet them.

"The FBI would rather have us working on terrorism," Koehler said, "but Innocent Images is such an important program, I'd do anything to keep it."

Koehler said that identifying and finding children is done by coordinating efforts with local sheriff departments.

"They are our bread and butter," she said. "But much is left up to parents to monitor and control their kids, to communicate and to set rules."

"Parents in general are the advocates - like John Walsh and Megan's parents. They push Congress to change laws and provide funding so that we have the resources and funding to find missing kids," she said.

"Talk to your kids," Koehler said. "If you're having problems with your kids, call me. I'll meet them or talk to them."

"If you suspect they've been victimized, let them tell me. Let them tell someone."

Some basic tips for safety:

n For children, never give out personal information online. Don't respond to messages from people.

n For parents, supervise children while they're online. Don't allow them to have computers in their bedrooms. Teach children how to be "street smart" on the Internet.

n There is software available to monitor children's computer activity. Use it and parental controls or filtering software, but don't rely on it.

n Finally, make sure there is a clear understanding of what is considered appropriate behavior and insist that those rules are applied at home and at school.

"Real kids have real friends," Koehler said. "You meet them in church. You meet them at school. You meet them in person."

Koehler's lecture was set up by Carson Valley resident Joe Dupuis. Dupuis is a retired police detective from Southern California and is volunteer coordinator at Carson Valley Middle School.

Dupuis heard of an incident involving a friend's minor daughter and an older man who lured the girl into a meeting. The girl thought she was meeting a 16-year-old boy she chatted with online and instead was assaulted by a 39-year-old man.

"Based on that background, I couldn't let it go," Dupuis said. "I started talking with the school district to get Anna (Koehler) to come here. It's an important issue that needs to be addressed in the community. Teens don't know the dangers. They need to be aware on the Net. You're not as safe as you think. Don't post pictures on the Net."

Dupuis had tips to share with parents. He said to have a good open dialogue about the Internet and its dangers.

"Cultivate a relationship with your teens," he said. "Develop trust both ways."

Every household should have rules about the appropriate use of computer time and activities allowed, he said.

"This needs to be clearly defined."

"Almost every Internet provider has some form of parental controls," he said. "Refer to the parental controls selection on provider's Web site and adjust your computer to allow or restrict access to certain sites."

"There are a number of spyware programs that allow parents to monitor and control activity on the Internet. You can Google 'spyware' to find them. Iambigbrother.com is one of the best," he said. "Go to Best Buy or any place with computerware to buy spyware. It's easy to install but you need to check on it occasionally."

"We need to start education about the dangers," Dupuis said. "Not everyone on the Net is your friend."

Lt. Mike Biaggini, from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, said for parents to contact deputies if they suspect something happening inappropriately, like someone trying to draw a child out for meeting.

Biaggini explained the dangers of networking Web sites such as the popular MySpace.com.

"There's been a number of kids identified and pictures pulled off the sites. There's a lot of middle school kids with profiles with explicit pictures and language," said Biaggini.

"The big thing is the info they give. Giving their cell numbers makes them so susceptible to predators."


FBI Special Agent Anna Koehler: (775) 825-6600

Lt. Mike Biaggini, Douglas County Sheriff's office: 782-9906

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: ncmec.com


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