New ways of meeting people and chatting on the Internet have given sexual predators of children an advantage over law enforcement, and police are asking for help to keep one step ahead of the criminals.
Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Xanga are revolutionizing ideas about how the Internet can be used as a social networking venue, giving registrants the opportunity to get in touch with more people than ever before, and to share ideas, stories and facts. But also emerging are an increasing number of stories about the dark side of the endless new ways of interconnecting.
So-called "social networking" sites, such as MySpace and Xanga make it easier than ever for predators to cloak their identities online — even more so than previous types of online communication like chat rooms and forums.
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"It really helps the predator to find the victim more quickly ... than they used to find them," Sgt. Frank Kardasz told FOXNews.com. Kardasz runs the federal Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Arizona and works in the family crimes unit of the Phoenix Police Department.
"You used to picture the child molester who would stand out in school yards. Now you've got a child molester [who] can find all kinds of possibilities ...with a few clicks of the mouse," he added.
Kardasz and others were among dozens of law enforcement officers, Internet security officers, lawyers, crime prevention advocates and public officials who attended a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children conference Thursday in Washington. The conference was the first ever held by the center on the topic.
Nancy Willard, the director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore., pointed out that predators can now be more bold; instead of going out in public to, say a mall, they can contact their victims online, lie about their identities, and trick their victims into thinking they're friends. Once the predators have finally made physical contact with their victims, it's often too late to prevent a crime.
"We have to educate kids about those techniques," Willard said.
Michelle Collins, who directs the Exploited Child Unit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the center's Internet tip line, cybertipline.com, received a total of 4,500 tips in its first year, 1998. Now it receives tips on 1,500 alleged child sexual exploitation cases per week, including many that are so-called "online enticement" cases in which a predator has used the Internet to get children to perform sex acts.
As new innovations appear on the Internet, predators also continue to exploit its speed, law enforcement officials and others said. The early concerns of the Internet have nearly been blown away; the fear that children could access online pornography has been replaced with that of them unknowingly making themselves victims of violent crimes.
Federal and state police said they need more cooperation from businesses and improved data collection about Web site users so they can find suspects easier once they're alerted to a possible crime. The officials said they also need more officers to fight cyber sex crime, and better training for the ones who already are working the beat.
'The Bad Guys Don't Care'
But even if these law enforcement needs are met, it might not solve all the problems posed by these sites. There are privacy concerns in the Internet industry over keeping and sharing data. John Cardillo, CEO of the Miami-based technology consulting firm Sentry, said there are also problems trying to verify people are who they say they are online, especially teens who don't necessarily have driver's licenses or credit cards. Other information, like Social Security numbers, birth and death certificates, and health information are shielded under privacy laws.
And, while law enforcement might be able to get a suspect's credit-card information after a crime has been committed, that 42-year-old suspect could have presented himself as a 14-year-old peer.
"We cannot, as an industry, verify the age of teenagers," Cardillo said.
Two specific things police want most from social networking companies was for them to keep registrant's data longer, and they want site managers to require a credit card.
If the data is kept as long as possible — two years, preferably — they said they can better track who was online and when, and use that information as evidence in cases.
Arnold Bell, chief of the FBI's Innocent Images Unit, said the credit-card requirement helps in contacting the suspect, but also it's a prevention matter; kids will more likely need their parent's permission to get online.
Another problem, Bell said, is the hodgepodge of state laws relating to cyber sex crimes, some strong, some weak. Federal law sometimes fills in the gaps. Also, there is no national registry of sex offenders, only state registries.
All these things are needed, Bell said, because "the bad guys don't care" about state borders or laws against cyber sex crime.
'Giant Strides' Needed
Internet companies are taking steps to come work with law enforcement. MySpace.com, which was sued for $30 million in damages by a 14-year-old girl who claimed she was molested because of MySpace's lax policies, announced new policies this week that no 14 or 15 year olds can be contacted by anyone older than 18 unless the adult knows the teen's name or e-mail address. The company also now allows anyone to shield their information from unknown parties.
MySpace is also no longer placing advertisements designed for older viewers — such as dating site advertisements — on pages for people whose ages are listed as younger than 18.
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Others companies are working on authentication methods and internal policing methods, as well as with law enforcement to improve their systems, company officials said Thursday.
MySpace security director Hemanshu Nigam said the site is dedicated to working with law enforcement and balancing that with protecting users' privacy.
"The house of MySpace has to be built on the solid foundation of safety and security," Nigam said.
But Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called the steps outlined by MySpace and others "baby steps."
"What we need are giant strides," Blumenthal said.
His office has asked MySpace to do a number of things, including raise its age requirements to 16 years old, from its current 14 years old.
He said there are a number of problems presented to the companies, including financial and administrative, "but it can be done."
But one thing law enforcement has always and will always struggle with is preventing the crime altogether. Arizona's Kardasz says it's a parent's job to guide their children through the Internet.
He said parents should consider the Internet like a street. On one side of the street, there are educational, inspirational and safe stores. On the other side of the street are pornographic and otherwise unsafe stores.
"Are you going to let your child walk down that street alone?"
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