Digital kids in danger

Children are more vulnerable than ever to predatory grooming via portable multimedia devices


     Unbeknownst to Katie, John was wanted on the East Coast for raping a 13-year-old girl when he met her online in 2002.

     During the months that 15-year-old Katie Canton and 22-year-old John were hiding their "love" affair, John was careful to provide phone cards to keep his number off the family phone bill. He later coached Katie on exactly what to tell her parents so they wouldn't be suspicious of their "friendship."

     Despite prominent media attention tackling the issue, instances of adults using the Internet to sexually solicit children continually top news headlines; and following in the Internet's technologically perilous footsteps are cell phones.

     Experts say the hot topic on technology and pedophiles has shifted from the Internet to cell phones. Due to the alarming access predators are afforded when Internet use and portable communications devices are combined, law enforcement and sex crime specialists are growing increasingly concerned. Potential sex predators use these devices to communicate with kids, gain their trust and groom them for sexual exploitation. Digital-age kids are more vulnerable than ever because pedophiles now have a direct, unfettered and unmonitored avenue to them.

The difference in cell phones and computers

     Pedophiles are getting wise to the barricades that parents and police are building between kids and predators online. In order to circumvent parental monitoring and police intervention, today's sexual predators are turning to the ever-evolving cell phones that parents provide their offspring, ironically, to keep them safer.

     Kory Nelson, an assistant city attorney in Denver, Colorado, who has worked in the City Prosecution and Enforcement Section for 18 years, says education and safety practices are in a race to catch up with technology.

     "Parents don't perceive [the cell phone] as being a dangerous item in which people can text their children or coax them into a bad situation," Nelson says. "That can lead to a ripe opportunity for somebody who wants to lure a child."

     Bob Lotter, CEO of eAgency, a mobile-solution software company based in Newport Beach, California, agrees. "We already know what the problem is with the Internet," Lotter says. "That's well understood. It gets a lot of discussion and there are many kinds of solutions. [But] take these problems from the Internet, put them on a phone and then, because the phone is small and because the child has it with them wherever they are, most of the use is unsupervised."

     There are different methodologies in the Internet world to protect kids — the primary lines of defense are to put the computer in a place where parents can keep an eye out or to install software that monitors all of the activity on the computer. Experts agree that the solutions to child safety issues online do not readily lend themselves to cell phones, due to the portability and subsequent privacy mobile devices provide. However, eAgency has developed and begun marketing a commercial software application that allows parents to monitor their child's communications remotely. Lotter explains that a child with a cell phone has access to millions of strangers — and strangers have access to them. Adding to the issue is the reality that with many cell phone models today, children can do virtually anything they can with a computer, including surfing the 'net, buying things, downloading music and taking and sending pictures.

     Radar works as an installed application on the child's phone, which monitors all communication — in and out — including phone calls, text messages, e-mails and pictures. A copy of that communication is sent to eAgency's server in real time and stored. Parents gain access to the information through a Web site, and the data also can be used later as evidence.

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