Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Internet Predators and Their Prey

The Appeal of Anonymity

For kids, the appeal of these online meeting places is the anonymity and the opportunity to represent a façade that might not have any basis in reality. The 'Net also provides a forum for kids to admit to things they don't want to say to people with whom they interact face-to-face. For example, a child who believes she's a lesbian may not want her friends to know but can find someone online to discuss her feelings with (using a screen name, of course, which allows her to "hide"). This helps kids to figure out who they are and what they want to do about it. It also helps predators bait their hooks.

Since online chat rooms don't have specific topics, kids range around looking for someone to talk with about the topic of their choice. While this can be a healthy way to work through pressure and relieve frustration, as well as exercise ideas they aren't brave enough to express with parents or in class, kids quite often freely give out personal information, including names, age, and phone numbers, which is just what a predator seeks. Sometimes, the kids talk among one another about sex, which is an even greater magnet. "Sexual themes," says Bower, "constitute about five percent of all messages, corresponding to about one sexual comment per minute." Unmonitored sites attract more males than monitored sites.

Parents trying to protect kids may forbid them from talking with strangers in chat rooms, but the kids are no match for wily con artists. They often don't even realize that they've become targets. One study indicates that children below the age of 12 don't grasp that strangers circulate in this arena and may contact them. Their awareness of the potential peril is vague at best, and with the typical adolescent sense of invulnerability, they believe they can tell who's dangerous from who's not — but they can't.

Chat rooms are the typical place for predators and victims to cross paths, as predators start the enticement process with "real time" conversations. Participants often post "profiles" that list things about themselves, such as age, gender, hobbies, and preferences, giving the predator a foothold — a way to introduce himself. Kids may also include their photos or use Web cams to show themselves in action. P2P networks allows for the sharing of large files, such as video, and predators not only look for these but send a few themselves, usually as bait or a way to solidify a "relationship."

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