For generations, parents have taught the "don't talk to strangers" rule to their children, but that rule has a whole new meaning now that kids can chat with strangers all over the world via the internet.
The internet luring problem has become so serious that it has helped push the federal government to raise the age of consent in Canada by two years — a law that came into effect in May 2008.
To the relief of many parents across the country, the Tackling Violent Crime Act raised the legal age of sexual consent in Canada to 16 from 14, the first time it has been raised since 1892.
Obviously, things have changed drastically since then, especially with the advent of technology. Parents have something new to fear. Online predators are smart and engaging, and can easily capture the attention of a lonely teen sitting alone in front of a computer screen searching for some sort of contact.
These predators know what to say, how to act and what they want. The kids may think they can handle the situation, experts say, but they can be up against seasoned internet lurers. It's often no match, and things can get serious if they end up meeting the adult.
It's a familiar story these days.
The move came after the Global Monitoring Report on the Status of Action against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, prepared by a Bangkok-based children's advocacy group, pointed out in 2006 that the low age of consent in Canada is a draw for pedophiles from other countries.
Some of these "strangers" prey on lonely teens who feel at odds with the world and circumstances at home and offer them an escape of sorts, experts say. These predators are prepared to travel to meet their victims, so the problem is not always a localized one.
What to look for
One major problem is that most of the time parents don't know when their kids are in trouble. But CyberBreach.com has a list of signs to look out for. How do you know if your child is in trouble?
- Long hours in the computer room.
- Closes windows on their computer when you enter room.
- Is secretive about internet activities.
- Behavioural changes.
- Is always doing homework on the internet but also always in chat groups, thus getting behind with school work.
- Unexplained long-distance telephone call charges.
- Won't say who they are talking to.
- Unexplained pictures on computer.
Parents must be extra vigilant on this internet front line, experts say.
Although tips to officials have saved some children, police sometimes are only called in when it's too late, for example, when a child has run off to meet an adult they may have been chatting with online for months.
'Seduce their targets'
Law enforcement officials are sending out the message that vigilance is needed.
"Some of these individuals gradually seduce their targets through the use of attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts. These individuals are often willing to devote considerable amounts of time, money, and energy in this process," explains an FBI website designed to help parents with internet safety.
"They listen to and empathize with the problems of children. They will be aware of the latest music, hobbies, and interests of children. These individuals attempt to gradually lower children's inhibitions by slowly introducing sexual context and content into their conversations," according to the FBI. "Parents and children should remember that a computer-sex offender can be any age or sex. The person does not have to fit the caricature of a dirty, unkempt, older man wearing a raincoat to be someone who could harm a child."
Talking in chat groups and through e-mail isn't anything like talking over the telephone or meeting someone in person, making deception easier, the FBI site says. There is no eye contact and there is no chance to pick up meaning from the cadence and rhythm of the human voice. Predators log on using fake names and can create new identities. A young teen might not find out they are dealing with an adult until it is too late.
The scary thing is that many younger people who chat on the internet think it's perfectly safe. But it's not.
"Examples of high risk, unsafe internet use include revealing personal information on social networking sites or chatrooms, posting images of themselves online, and using webcams," according to Cybertip.ca, a national tipline for reporting the online sexual exploitation of children.
There have been a number of luring cases recently in Canada, including:
- In December 2004, an Edmonton man who had sex with a 13-year-old autistic girl was sentenced to seven years in prison. Brian Scott Deck pleaded guilty to six counts, including sexual interference and luring a child on the internet. Deck, who went by the internet name "edmontonpervert," met the girl in an internet chat room.
- In March 2006, an Edmonton man charged with using the internet to link up with a 12-year-girl in Ontario was found not guilty after a judge ruled that "dirty talk" does not constitute luring.
- In August 2007, a Montreal man who pleaded guilty to victimizing two Alberta girls through luring and extortion was sentenced to nine years in prison. Outside an Edmonton courtroom, Crown prosecutor Diane Hollinshead said Joshua Innes's nine-year sentence will hopefully send a message. In May, Innes, then 25, pleaded guilty to two counts of child internet luring, two counts of extortion and one count of distributing child pornography.
- In May 2008, a Quebec man faced several criminal charges for allegedly luring a 13-year-old girl into a sexual liaison via the internet. The 34-year-old was arrested at his Montreal office after the young teenager complained to her parents.
- Also in May 2008, a New Brunswick teacher was charged with luring a child over the internet. Jude O'Reilly, 33, of St. George, was charged in provincial court in St. Stephen after police acted on information from Halifax Regional Police. RCMP said a computer in St. George was allegedly being used to conduct an online chat — which included inappropriate sexual content — with a child believed to be under the age of 14.
- A 31-year-old Belgian man was charged in June 2008 after he allegedly lured a 13-year-old girl to a Montreal hotel. Police said they found the girl with a man at a hotel on a gritty strip near Montreal's central bus terminal after a city-wide manhunt. The accused is charged with child luring and could face further charges, said Montreal police Const. Yannick Ouimet.
In 2001, Ottawa proposed a new law that would mean a maximum five-year prison sentence for people caught using the internet to lure children. The law came into effect in July 2002 as part of an omnibus amendment to the Criminal Code.
But Bruce Headridge, a former detective with the Organized Crime Agency of B.C., says there's still a long way to go as the legal system tries to keep up with the quickly-evolving technology.
While with the agency, Headridge tried to catch internet predators by pretending to be a teenager online, and had some success, but he says the best defence is a watchful, involved parent.
The FBI advises parents to instruct their children:
- To never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they meet online.
- To never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the internet or online service to people they do not personally know.
- To never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number.
- To never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images.
- To never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing; that whatever they are told on-line may or may not be true.
CyberBreach.com, which was set up by Headridge, also suggests guidelines for online chats and e-mails. As well, the site provides information on how to supervise a child's use of the internet and provides information on software that can block access to websites with questionable content.