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How to Protect Your Children from Online Sexual Predators
By Richard McKee

The Internet has brought the world together via instantaneous communication with other people through text, pictures, video, and data, in a way that was incomprehensible a few decades ago. It is an incredibly powerful tool, in the right hands. In the wrong hands, it is an incredibly dangerous weapon.

When it comes to Internet safety, people, parents in particular, need to change their perspective. The virtual world of the Internet can be far more dangerous than the real world. At the mall or walking down the street it is very easy to spot a “creepy looking guyapostrophe lurking around. You know him: the guy that just looks out of place, acting suspiciously. In the real world you can see him; on the Internet, however, you lose that first line of defense.

It is incredibly easy to become somebody else in the virtual world. You can lie about your age, where you live, your relationship status, your employment, even your gender. After all, these are just words on a screen. You can further enhance the façade by use of pictures. On the Internet it is frighteningly easy for a 34-year old married man to pose as a 24-year old single man and start instant messaging with your teenage daughter, or even for a 43-year old man to transform himself into a 15-year old girl. [Is the second example of creepy guys a tactic to gain the confidence of teenage girls or teenage boys? The one you edited out was more to point out that boys can be victimized as well. Additionally, it was a comparison to real world creepy guy and virtual world creepy guy.]

Following are some basic Internet safety tips to protect your children online. These recommendations are not pulled out of thin air; they come from countless investigations, interviewing real victims, and interrogating real criminals. The victims interviewed never imagined they would become victims, but criminals are dedicated and determined. Without taking some precautions your child could be the next target.

No computer in your child’s bedroom. Keep it in a common area of the house, whether it is a home office, the kitchen or a den. It needs to be in a place where the child knows that you can see what he or she is doing. Your child does not need privacy for doing homework, or for emailing friends. They want it, but they don’t need it. If your child went into his or her bedroom to talk with a friend on the phone, you could still hear half of the conversation through the door. But you cannot hear what your children are typing, or worse yet, see what they are sending with their webcams.

Create one user account with administrator-level privileges and create limited user accounts for the day-to-day use of everyone else in the family. The administrator account has the ability to install programs and add users. Administrator-level privileges are not necessary for day-to-day use. By doing this, you are protecting not only your children by preventing them from installing things on the computer that are potentially dangerous to them, but also you are providing a basic level of protection from malware installing itself on your system. If a hacker manages to get a piece of malware installed on your system, they can have complete control of your computer and your anti-virus software will not stop it.

Use the Parental Controls options that are within your operating system. Microsoft and Apple have done a nice job of giving parents the ability to control when children use the computer, and what they do with it. These options control when your child can use the computer (like not in the middle of the night while you are sleeping), what web sites they can or, more importantly, cannot visit, what programs they are allowed to run, and even reporting on what they have been doing.

As for monitoring what your children do online, there are a variety of programs that go beyond what the parental controls of your computer’s operating system provide. Some of these programs run invisible to the user, but capture all of the user’s activity including web pages, searches, instant messages, and emails. These programs can even be configured with keywords to send an email notifying you if your child is doing something he or she isn’t supposed to be doing. Of course, the results of this tactic vary depending on whether your child knows of your monitoring capabilities. If children know you’re watching they could alter their behavior to avoid detection.

Two of the best resources for parents for online protection are the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) http://www.missingkids.com/ and Netsmartz.com http://www.netsmartz.com/. NCMEC has a variety of publications for parents online, and NetSmartz.com has interactive pages and videos for parents and children promoting safe surfing, which is conveniently geared for different age groups. Microsoft also has a page devoted to Internet safety at http://www.microsoft.com/protect/, and Apple has tutorials on using their parental controls at http://www.apple.com/findouthow/mac/#parentalcontrols.

About the Author:
Richard McKee is a detective with the Milwaukee Police Department, conducting criminal investigations for almost 20 years. He is currently assigned to the High Technology Unit, conducting cyber investigations and is part of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.