PRINCETON —  Internet predators may hide behind a computer screen and identify themselves with nonsensical names, but never doubt they are master manipulators skilled at weakening children’s defenses.

They seek out children with self-esteem issues and establish a rapport that looks like support, from the outside.

And they thrive on finding victims who are more technologically savvy than their parents, because they are then easy prey.

These are among the bleak realities West Virginia State Police Cpl. M.K. Summers and his colleagues face as they investigate Internet crimes against children and set out to keep local kids safe.

“You’ve got to be extremely careful with the information you put online, because once you put it on Facebook, or MySpace, or anywhere online, you lose control of it. There are people out there who would like to use it against you,” Summers said, as he conducted an online safety session Tuesday at Princeton Public Library.

While many children, teens and adults have been educated to avoid using physical addresses and direct phone numbers on social media and gaming sites, Summers said identifiable information can come in many other forms.

“If I’m a predator, looking for a victim, and I see a girl’s picture online, I’m going to look for every detail I can in that picture,” he said. “If she’s wearing a T-shirt that is blue and white and says something about Tiger track team, I’m going to be able to find out that she’s a member of the Princeton track team.”

From there, the officer said locating a victim at track practice could be as simple as reviewing a school’s official website.

As online predators and cyber bullying increasingly make headlines across the nation, Summers said technology often moves faster than its consumers can keep up. In fact, the information we make available to the rest of the world sometimes isn’t even visible to us.

As an example, he cited “geotagging.”

“If you have a cell phone and your cell phone takes pictures, you should know what geotagging is,” he said, explaining that most cell phones with internal cameras are also designed to attach coded information — a tag — reflecting the time and place a photo was taken.

If that photo is then uploaded to a social networking site, Summers said predators can usually find a way to reach that tagged information, learning map coordinates for the location. That can be particularly dangerous if the photo is clearly taken inside a person’s home.

“He can put that tagged information into Google and see, probably, a picture of your house. He’ll be able to see your street address, and he may even be able to see your home phone number,” Summers said.

Although his unit is primarily focused on investigating online predators, Summers said cyber bullying is also an ongoing problem for families, and the most extreme cases can involve law enforcement.

“I always say that cyber bullying is the kind of bullying that follows you home,” he said. “If two kids get into a fight on the playground and one is getting kicked around, that one can run home and escape the bullying. But if the bullying is happening online, you really can’t run away from that.”

In the event that cyber bullying reaches a hazardous level, Summers advised parents to help their children block the bully from commenting or communicating with them. If that doesn’t deter the bullies, contact the website administrator directly and report abuse. And, if all else fails, notify authorities.

It’s important to note, however, that deleting the site and bullies’ communication is not a good idea, because it could serve as evidence, if an official investigation becomes necessary.

For parents and children alike, Summers said education about online hazards and the ways to combat them are key.  He recommended that family computers be kept in a common room in the house and that parents routinely check on what their kids are viewing or researching.

If they notice suspicious activity, reviewing a browser history and/or files on the computer could reveal valuable information. He even recommended requiring children and teens to hand over their user names and passwords to online accounts so that parents may randomly check on their communications.

And, for kids, the officer offered three rules:

• Don’t add anyone you don’t know for sure is a friend in real life.

• Release as little information about yourself as possible, particularly if you aren’t sure who you’re communicating with.

• If anything worries you or makes you feel suspicious, tell a trusted adult and cut off the online communication.

For more information on online safety and related topics, visit www.netsmartz.org.

In the event you fear a predator is targeting your child or you have information on predatory behavior, contact the local authorities or file a tip at law enforcement’s Cyber Tipline, 1-800-THE-LOST.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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