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Internet hazards for kids exposed at UNM event

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Thirteen-year-old Alicia was your average girl next door when she befriended another adolescent, Christine, online.

Over time, the two became fast friends. They shared dreams, desires, secrets, likes and dislikes, and, eventually, photos. But when they finally got around to meeting in person, Alicia found herself shocked beyond belief. In her words, “Christine was really a middle-aged pervert named Scott.”

Scott Tyree abducted the child. Then began an evil, vicious, ongoing process of torture, rape, terror and death threats if she didn’t comply with his base desires.

Alicia’s true story was one of several examples of cyber crime that two representatives of the state Attorney General’s Office relayed to a small and almost horrified audience Thursday evening at the Domenici Center Auditorium on the University of New Mexico’s North Campus.

Zack Freeman and Lois Kinch were there to let parents know the scope of potential Internet hazards when kids are involved, and what they, as adults, can and should do to protect their children.

Drawing an analogy with learning to drive, an exercise that takes up hours in drivers-ed classes, and additional hours behind the wheel with professional instructors and parents, followed by mandatory written and road tests, Freeman, the Attorney General Office’s graphic and outreach designer, held up his smartphone: “My car can’t take me to the other side of the planet, but this can.”

The message was that social media has taken over many aspects of life, in some ways dangerously.

The irony, Freeman said, is that parents believe they get cellphones for their kids to protect them, when, without strict rules and guidelines, the devices often serve an entirely opposite purpose.

The cellphone is, in reality, much more than a mere telephone. It is a convenient and incredibly powerful computer with such common features and programs as GPS, apps and Photoshop, all of which the most unscrupulous among us can and have used to target innocent children.

“If you don’t know about this stuff,” Freeman cautioned parents, “you have to learn. What’s important is not ‘how to use it,’ it’s ‘the proper use of.'”

“Anyone can use these tools,” added Kinch, a special agent in the Internet Crimes Against Children division.

One of the easiest ways for a child predator to track kids and learn about their whereabouts is through video games, Freeman said. A kid playing a game with a message box – or message capability – in reality has no idea whom he or she is talking with.

But perhaps the greatest danger lies in social media – Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Kik and the like. For example, anyone can buy and install an app called Tweets Nearby. Someone with less-than-honorable intentions can visit, say, a crowded food court in a shopping mall, sit down and begin to record information on anyone nearby who happens to be using a smartphone to tweet.

Kinch, who has been dealing with Internet crimes for more than a dozen years, explained the concept of “grooming,” a process by which criminal minds learn about potential victims through a combination of patience, cunning and sleuth that can feed into cyberbullying. Girls, particularly, are apt to become unwitting victims of this type of crime, she said.

Kids need to know the potential dangers of activities such as sexting or posting “pickle pix,” she said.

If they suspect anything is wrong, they should immediately tell someone they trust: a parent, favorite teacher, counselor, coach.

The decisions children and their parents make regarding smartphones and computers could make a world of difference for an entire lifetime, Freeman and Kinch said. Without mature consideration, anyone’s child could find out, as Alicia did, that “the bogeyman is real and he lives on the Web.”