By Ron Leir
For kids, computers are a great resource for games, research material for school papers and … DANGER from loads of predators just waiting to exploit them.
That was the dire message delivered to parents Feb. 29 at Lyndhurst High School by Det. Michael Lemanowicz, assigned to the 31-member Bergen County Prosector’s Office Computer Crimes Task Force.
Lemanowicz and members of the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement talked about “Staying Safe in Cyberspace – Internet Safety for Parents,” a wake-up call for any parent whose children use a computer at home.
Thinking of the computer as an “electronic babysitter” is a big mistake, Lemanowicz warned his audience, because of all the invisible bad guys out in cyberspace who, instead of cruising parks to seek out and prey on youngsters, now log onto web sites and enter chat rooms from the privacy of their homes to find innocent victims.
And cyberspace predators come from all ethnic groups, all walks of life, all parts of the globe, Lemanowicz reminded parents. As an example, he cited the 2006 case of a doctor from a children’s hospital in Philadelphia who traveled to Bergen County to hook up with what he thought would be a 13-year-old girl for sex. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. Or, more recently, there was an administrator in the N.J. Dept. of Transportation who was busted for child pornography.
Parents have to educate themselves about the nuances of the Internet, Lemanowicz said, because today, “kids are way ahead of us on computer savvy.”
But they’re not always savvy enough to realize who they’re dealing with on the other side of the cyberspace conversation, he said.
After he’d finished his training for entry to the computer crimes task force, Lemanowicz said he created an undercover Internet account, pretending to be a 13-year-old girl from Lyndhurst, and soon after logging into a chat room, got a “hit” from a 31-year-old Jersey City man. “On the third line of our conversation, without asking anything about me, he wanted to have sex,” the detective said.
To protect their kids against potential predators, Lemanowicz said, parents should:
Never allow a child to have an Internet connection and a web camera in his or her bedroom; keep the computer in a family room.
Check up on a child’s on-line activity, including frequent surprise peeks at the screen. Purchase of software “spy” programs that will show an archival record of the child’s online activity is recommended.
Parents can filter, block, control and/or record what a child views over the Internet.
Lemanowicz advised parents to talk to their kids about how to use the Internet and to establish rules for its use. Such rules, he said, should include these:
Never talk to a stranger, whether it be via email, instant messaging, chatting, or on-line gaming sites. One site, IRC, which, Lemanowicz said, offers “cheat codes” for Internet games, is “the ‘Wild West’ of chat rooms.”
Never enter a chat room where you don’t know all the participants, never use a web camera or voice chat with anyone you don’t know and never send your picture to anyone you don’t know. “Every single chat room has a bad guy in them,” Lemanowicz said. Particularly racy ones, he said, include Stickam, Formspring, Chat Roulette and tinychat.
Never post on-line personal information, such as last name, address, phone number or photo. Predators can exploit this information to try and create a sense of trust and intimacy or, failing that, bombard a victim with threats of exposing their contact to their parents.
And, Lemanowicz said, the real scary part is that often, rather than facing the loss of their computer as punishment, the child will risk exposing himself/herself to possible danger from a predator.
On-line harassment and threats to do harm have become a huge problem, too, the detective said. A recent survey showed that an estimated 80,000 kids nationwide “come up with an excuse every day they can’t go to school because of on-line bullying,” he said, and a good portion of those kids were found to either have special needs or were gay or lesbian or perceived of being such.
Lyndhurst Schools Supt. Tracey Marinelli said that the district has arranged for prior cyberspace safety discussions between law enforcement and parents – and with middle school kids as well. “The police are always bringing the latest and greatest information to keep our kids safe,” she said.
Several parents interviewed after the presentation said they were grateful to get that information.
Karen Breslin, mother of a third- and fourth-grader in the Lyndhurst public school system, said she found it “pretty amazing” to learn “what kids have access to on-line. It was an eye-opener.” She said both her children use the computer for homework and for games. “We keep the computer in a family room and my husband monitors the kids,” she said.