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In our opinion: Online sexual predators make life for children no fairy tale

Over the past year, a sting operation resulted in the arrests of 50 men for allegedly attempting to have sex with underaged children in Salt Lake City alone.

Over the past year, a sting operation resulted in the arrests of 50 men for allegedly attempting to have sex with underaged children in Salt Lake City alone.
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Over the past year, a sting operation resulted in the arrests of 50 men for allegedly attempting to have sex with underaged children in Salt Lake City alone. Police detectives posed as young boys and girls online, and the predators flowed to them like sharks to the sandy waters of a crowded beach.

The Utah experience mirrors other sting operations nationwide. In Sarasota County, Florida, a similar operation netted 25 arrests in July. The suspects ranged in age from 19 to 65. In Salt Lake City, they spanned a spectrum from 21 to 80.

Clearly, parents have a job to do when it comes to educating and protecting their children. This will involve monitoring their online activities, as well, and that includes knowing what they are doing on popular social media apps they access from their phones.

Police should be commended for their undercover work, and we urge them to devote more resources to similar operations. One can’t help but wonder how many other predators have yet to be detected.

The menace is not new. In former days, grownups invented fairy tales to warn children about dangers. In those, children were chased by wolves, eaten by mean old witches or pursued by giants hiding in the leafy heights of a bean stalk.

Today, they need to be ready to run from wolves who change their appearance at will, who can act as friendly child-chatters one minute and then suddenly morph into beasts who chase them with a desire to grind their bones for their own gratification.

Among those arrested in Salt Lake City was Disney actor Stoney Westmoreland, in town for the filming of a show. This is a stark example of how difficult it is to recognize the bad from the good visually, much less with the anonymity the internet affords. Police said Westmoreland allegedly was lured by what he thought was a 13-year-old.

Salt Lake police detective Greg Wilking told KSL these arrests add a whole new meaning to the term, “stranger danger.”

“Stranger danger right here on our kids’ devices on their phones on their computers,” he said. “It’s important that we have communication with our kids about these issues, that we are paying attention to what our kids are doing online on the computer, but also on the phone.”

That takes work. It’s impossible to know what children are doing every second of the day, especially if they are entrusted with smartphones and similar devices. But vigilance isn’t just important, it is deadly serious.

“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Jack in the Bean Stalk” all have happy endings. Children flee or chop down the giant stalk. Real life doesn’t always end that way.

Few crimes are as heinous as those that prey on the young, vulnerable and innocent. The technology that grants opportunities to these criminals isn’t going away. Only a heightened vigilance and a sense of street smarts beyond what has, in the past, been expected of a child can offer protection.

Given what is at stake, we should demand nothing less.