STUTTGART, Germany — Before Dateline’s reality show "To Catch a Predator" hit the air a few years ago, there was Robert Farley.
Farley, the former commander of the Cook County Sheriff Office’s child exploitation unit in Chicago, led the first law enforcement team in the U.S. that posed undercover to trap pedophiles. Now a consultant, Farley was at U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart this week to talk with military law enforcement, parents and students about the dangers that lurk online for children.
The first step, though, was debunking some myths about what a predator looks like.
"Someone old," said one student in the audience.
"What’s old?" Farley inquired.
"Gray hair and whiskers," answered another teen.
Until the Internet, that was probably true in some cases, Farley said.
And it wasn’t long ago that law enforcement agencies would routinely respond to a springtime ritual for perverts, who, like clockwork, would show up at schoolyards to flash children when the weather warmed. In recent years, that phenomenon has pretty much died out, Farley said.
"They’re all online now," Farley said.
Social networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace are where pedophiles are now looking for victims.
"It’s getting worse and worse," he said. "Everybody on the computer is a ‘friend.’ Nobody is a stranger."
Farley’s tips for children and their parents:
- Never put a computer in a child’s bedroom – keep it in a shared area.
- Never allow a child to be online after school without an adult in the house. The afternoon is prime time for pedophiles.
- Don’t post personal information on online diaries. Pedophiles are good at using this information to start conversations and lower a child’s inhibitions. Also, be cautious about what pictures are posted on home pages.
- Stay out of chat rooms.
During his time as an investigator, Farley watched as pedophiles jumped on the latest technology. In the 1980s, trading in child porn was mainly restricted to secret publications with underground networks of people trading material in back alleys.
By 1997, everything started to change with the Internet, which enabled pedophiles to trade images by the thousands, while also giving opportunities to interact with children. Now, cell phones are the latest danger, with predators getting numbers off social networking pages to make more direct connections, Farley said.
"They are always on the cutting edge of technology," Farley said.
In the case of social sites such as MySpace, teens too often are under the illusion that they are protected from predators, Farley said. For instance, marking your MySpace page private doesn’t mean it actually is restricted to just friends. Farley then demonstrated to the group how a pedophile can gain access to private pages and pictures simply by entering a person’s page through Google instead of the MySpace home page.
"So if I mark it private, it’s not really private?" asked a Stuttgart teen in the audience.
"Nothing, nothing out there on the Internet is private," Farley said.