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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on May 1st, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 8

Don't talk to strangers online

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

The world of Internet-ready devices is one that many adults don’t fully understand, said Tracy Webb during a presentation at St. Joseph High School on April 29.

She told parents and teachers that children today are “born digital.” “That makes us digital immigrants,” she said.

Webb is a member of the Los Angeles Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that watches over an area from Northern Santa Barbara County to the northern San Diego County line. They police and help prosecute criminals who commit crimes against kids via the Internet.

Those cases, unfortunately, include crimes we’ve heard of before, such as child pornography and abduction. But they also include crimes with new names, like sextortion, and things we don’t think of as happening in the United States, such as human trafficking. The task force pulls support from the FBI, Secret Service, Homeland Security, and U.S. Attorney General, as well as local sheriff’s and police departments, and agencies overseas.

“Even with all those resources, we still can’t keep up,” Webb said. “The bad guys are sort of one step ahead
of us.”

She listed websites, chat rooms, and applications that adult attendees had never heard of. But she said the students who went to an earlier presentation told her they were using or had used all of those sites and apps.

Communicating with friends and family on the Internet isn’t inherently bad, Webb said, but privacy and location settings need to be set accordingly. And it’s also important to realize that those settings don’t guarantee privacy because anything put on the Internet stays on the Internet.

She noted the ease of access children and teens have to total strangers, and that many of them actively “chat” with those strangers without thinking twice.

“[Criminals] are very good at knowing the trends; they’re very good at knowing what the kids are into,” Webb said. “Kids don’t realize that when they don’t know who they’re talking to, they don’t know who they’re talking to.”

It’s as if the tried-and-true idiom “don’t talk to strangers” doesn’t apply to a screen. She said children don’t think about talking to people online the same way because it feels safe and private.

“It’s our job as adults to … monitor them and guide them and make sure these types of [crimes] don’t affect them,” Webb said.

Human trafficking is the up-and-coming crime to pay the most attention to, Webb told the Sun after the presentation. She said it’s estimated that 200,000 American kids are at risk of being trafficked in the next year. A big way kids are drawn in is through chat rooms, never knowing what the true intentions are behind their online conversations with people.

Santa Barbara County Chief Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss said unfortunately it’s a crime that often goes unreported, but is starting to get noticed.

“Human trafficking is a very hot topic in DA’s offices up and down the coast,” Auchincloss said. “We are just discovering the scope of it.”

The extent to which human trafficking has spread in the United States is unknown at this point, but it’s much closer to home than many people think: The task force recently raided a house in San Diego, where they found 17 children younger than 18. All were hungry, dirty, and being prostituted on the streets of southern San Diego and Tijuana. Webb said all were lured into the trap via chat rooms and the promise of fame and fortune.

Sue Armstrong, an Arellanes Junior High School teacher who attended the presentation, said she’s listened to similar overviews of the dangers of the Internet, but she wasn’t aware of all the websites and chat rooms Webb mentioned.

It’s hard to stay on top of it all, Armstrong said, but it’s something parents need to stay up to date with.

“I think that parents have to check and monitor their kids’ activities online and on their smart phones,” she said. “Which means parents need to own a smart phone and they need to know how to use it.”