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Marjorie Cortez: Parents must be vigilant about cyberworld

Hey "Mike." I'm outing you.

Recently, "Mike" sent a child I know an instant message. "Mike," or so he called himself, asked whether her computer was equipped with a webcam. "Mike" said he had heard she was "horny" and "wanted to flash him." "Mike" wanted to know where she lives.

When she inquired "Mike who?" Mike didn't reply. No surprise there.

Happily, the child told her parent about this encounter within minutes of it happening. The details of the conversation and the guy's screen name will be turned over to authorities with the hope that "Mike" won't solicit other children. He's been blocked from the kid's IM list. Still, the episode makes me sick to my stomach.

It makes me fear for children who don't have the wherewithal to stop such aggression in its tracks. What if you're a kid who has poor self-esteem? What if you spend an inordinate amount of time — unsupervised — on the Internet? If some practiced predator knows what to say, and how to say it, a child could be quite vulnerable to harm.

To that point, it surprised me how direct "Mike" was. There was no "getting to know you" conversation. His intent was clear from the get-go. He wanted to see whom he was writing.

I sort of wish now that there had been a webcam. Imagine how surprised "Mike" would have been had someone from the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force been on the other side of the conversation holding a badge to the webcam. Imagine how shocked he'll be when law enforcement eventually catches up with him.

Having watched Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series more times than I care to think about, "Mike" likely would offer up a litany of familiar excuses: "I didn't know I was talking to a kid." "Someone else was using my computer."

The thing that's always creeped me out about the cyberworld is the environment enables people to readily cloak their true identities. Looking for some extracurricular activity outside marriage? You can lie about your name and marital status on an online dating profile. Want to steal someone's identity? Pose as a "financial institution" and ask many personally identifying questions to "clear up the matter with their account." Want to get rich quick? Pretend you're a prince or princess in an exotic location who desperately needs to transmit your small fortune to the United States. Appeal to the kindness of strangers to help you move your money, temporarily holding it in their accounts. (It's why we need your account number, good sir.)

Before I'm cast as a Luddite, let me say that I thoroughly enjoy the benefits of technology. It's here to stay. It's just that we have to be profoundly careful how we use it and guard against being duped by unscrupulous users, particularly people who use it to prey on children.

Dave White, an agent with the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, says parents need to carefully monitor their children's Internet use. Safeguards such as filtering software can help, although some things can occasionally slip through. Parents should contact the local law enforcement or go to the Web site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to report online enticement of children for sex acts or possession, manufacture or distribution of child pornography, among other categories. The center's Web site is www.missingkids.com

White, who has worked on the multi-jurisdictional task force for seven years, says many people aren't as wary of the Internet as they ought to be. People who lock their doors at night think little of the dangers that lurk in cyberspace. Some parents don't check up on their children's online activities because they think it's important to respect their privacy.

Should a child's privacy come at the expense of their exposure to sexual solicitation or being exposed to pornography? Should a child's privacy come at the expense of a parent's identity being stolen? No on both accounts.

The way White figures it, so long as parents foot the bill for the Internet service, it's fair game for checking a computer's use, down to the keystroke.

White's philosophy has a lot of merit.

Equally important is cultivating a relationship of trust with your children so they will come to you when something is awry in the cyberworld. It's often our best defense against the "Mikes" of the world.


Marjorie Cortez, who knows "Mike's" name most assuredly isn't "Mike," is a Deseret Morning News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com.