Predator's Playground

In League City, Texas, it would be unusual to make one arrest of a suspected online sexual predator in a month. But in the last two weeks, detectives there have tracked down two men whom they've charged with sexual assault of a minor. Both of the accused men found or conversed with their victims via the social-networking Web site MySpace.com, according to League City police.

In the first case, a 14-year-old girl's parents discovered that she was receiving explicitly sexual messages online from a stranger and alerted police. Detectives say that they, posing as the girl, logged into MySpace and began chatting with the suspect. "We made it clear to him that the girl he thought he was talking to was 14 and he said he was 38," explains Sgt. Dan Krieger of the League City Police Department. "But when he arrived for a meeting with the girl, he found our arrest team instead." The suspect, Robert A. Wise of League City, has been indicted on charges of online solicitation of a minor. Wise, who could not be reached for comment, has not yet entered a plea, according to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office. Detectives say they gathered enough evidence online to also charge him with the sexual assault of another 14-year-old girl he allegedly met on MySpace.

On Jan. 24, only 12 days after the Wise arrest, a League City 15-year-old snuck out of her home to meet a 26-year-old Houston man that she had been communicating with via MySpace, according to Krieger. Police say they found her the next day in Houston and have charged the man with sexual assault of a child.

MySpace and similar sites like Xanga are extremely popular among teens and young adults who post profiles, photos and blogs—often chock-full of revealing personal details for all the world (including predators) to see. "We discourage people from posting any identifying information. One of our victims listed the school she went to and that could have led a predator right to her door," warns Krieger. "Men like Robert Wise are window-shopping on sites like MySpace."

As the number of teens on the Net rises, so do the worries about keeping them safe. Membership in MySpace has jumped from zero to more than 50 million in just two years. MySpace, purchased last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has extensive safety rules posted, and they review the site for sexually explicit photos—which are prohibited. The company also uses a search engine to scan the site for profiles of members who may be under the minimum age of 14. While MySpace could not comment specifically on the Texas cases, it released a statement to NEWSWEEK saying that the company has a large staff dedicated to responding to safety issues and that it "regularly works with law enforcement to investigate and prevent potential criminal activity … Since the company's inception, MySpace has met with law enforcement officials around the country to solicit their viewpoints on how MySpace can deepen its cooperation with law enforcement and enhance user safety." They add: "MySpace encourages all members to recognize the public nature of the Internet and exercise caution when providing any personal information."

NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff spoke to Monique Nelson, executive vice president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit Internet safety organization based in Santa Ana, Calif., about how parents can reduce the risks for kids on social-networking sites. Excerpts:

Monique Nelson: Kids just don't get it that there are real people beyond the screen—not just their friends. They post private information and they don't understand that a predator could be looking at it and tracking them. They are naive and vulnerable. They think, "Nothing bad is going to happen to me," just like we did when were young.

It's one-stop shopping. You have the profile and instant messaging right there. These networking sites are a perfect predator's playground. Predators don't have to go to chat rooms, they can troll through and look for pretty faces that they like and get all the information they want. The police we work with tell us that when a predator starts grooming a child, he looks for vulnerability, and with a diary or blog right there, he's already gotten past the first stage.

No, because the kids aren't telling. Sometimes they don't even tell mom and dad that they have a space [online]. Maybe they're underage, and if they tell, guess what mom and dad will do? Take away the page. We've done surveys of kids ages 12-15 and asked them if they had ever been sexually harassed online, and most of them said they had been, but they never tell their parents. [According to Highlights of the Youth Internet Safety Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, "One in five children, 10 to 17 years old, receive unwanted sexual solicitations online."]

There's really not a way to check their online profile. The sites have some moderators, but there are not very many, and with that many people on there, it's hard. I believe many of the kids lie and are underage.

Even if they don't post their address, they don't understand that if they have pictures of themselves in front of their school sign or the place where they work it could lead someone to them. That very thing happened with my granddaughter—she had a shirt with the logo of the coffee shop and the city where she worked. She just didn't think that right there she had given away some private information. And she's not little, she's 19, and she's had a grandma that's talked to her about this for 10 years.

Most parents don't know anything about MySpace or the other sites, and if they do, they think it's harmless. The truth of the matter is that a lot of parents are intimidated by their kids because their kids are so much more tech-savvy than they are. And they're busy and they don't have time to learn about this, so they say, "OK, if you're having fun, go ahead."

Every parent should do some homework. Find out what your child's online aliases are. And, if you don't know about this stuff, let your kid teach you. It's a perfect time to sit down with them and let them show you. A really direct approach is to restrict Internet access to times when parents are home. You can do that with a password system. Almost every safety expert recommends that the computer be in the family room where parents can see it, but guess where most kids have their computers? Their room. Parents can also install monitoring software which can track where the kid goes and what they are typing. FilterReview.com is a great Web site that reviews the different monitoring software for parents.

One way to impress upon them is to discuss some of these cases where bad things have happened so that it hits home and becomes real to them. Because most kids, if you talk to them will say: "Oh, please, that happens to other people."

In my house, I say it's a dictatorship—sorry. MySpace is a privilege; a computer is a privilege. A parent needs to be a parent and that may mean using monitoring software.

We use computer games to teach kids about predators and online bullying—which is also a problem. We have one called "Missing" based on a true story of a boy that was lured by an Internet predator. Kids take the role of a police agent, the missing kid and the parents, and the goal is to find the boy. That way they understand the language that a predator uses and the kinds of things they do to trap kids. It's all streaming video, not cartoons, so the kids really connect with it. We've reached 1.3 million kids ages 12-15, and we have a new one this year for high-school kids. [The game and other safety information for parents and schools is available via http://www.webwisekids.org/.]

Yes, but kids go to friend's homes or get online elsewhere, so parents still need to get involved and talk to their children.