The numbers are hard to document, but travelers are clearly part of an Internet-era crime wave. The FBI alone, through its "Innocent Images" project, opens six new traveler investigations every week. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which maintains a Cybertipline, gets about 15 new leads about online enticements each week. A traveler gets arrested somewhere in America almost every day.
The profile of a traveler may surprise you. It's a first-offense white man with a job, sometimes a very good job. Patrick Naughton of Infoseek/Go.com; Terry Spontarelli, a Los Alamos research chemist; George DeBier, a former Belgian diplomat; William Bowles, former CEO of iBeam.com; all are examples of men who propositioned underage kids online, and then tried to meet for sex. Each met an undercover police officer or FBI agent instead.
Why is this a crime wave of upper-income white guys? Partly because they were the first to get proficient with computers. But this very question has led to a raging debate.
Children's advocates like Ruben Rodriguez of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that the same class of criminal that used to stalk the playground now stalks kids from the perceived anonymity of cyberspace. Wrong, says Donald Marks, the attorney for Patrick Naughton. Marks won a hung jury in the Naughton case, arguing that Naughton was only pursuing a fantasy, and that Naughton would never have acted upon that fantasy were it not for the online FBI agent who was there to say "yes, I'm 13," and "yes, I'll meet you for sex." Marks' point is, this is a class of men with too much to do and too much to lose to ever stalk a playground.
Either way, it's an exploding new crime and a real threat to online kids. Remember, despite the success of the "fantasy defense," Patrick Naughton did show up on the Santa Monica pier (where the FBI and L.A. Sheriff's deputies waited) hoping a 13-year-old was there. Incidentally, he pleaded guilty to the charge of "traveling" in March, rather than face a second trial.
What should parents do to protect their online children?
- Don't allow our children to give out personal information online. Period.
- Have rules for what they can say and can't say and do in chat rooms or instant message services. If they keep an AOL "Buddy List," know who their "buddies" are.
- Discuss specifically with your children where they can and cannot go on the Web.
- Buy and use blocking and/or screening software.
- Learn to monitor the history tracking function on your child's browser.
Also, check out the links we include with this report. Cyberangels.com in particular has simple, heads-up pointers. There are concise summaries of the screening and blocking software available to limit offensive Web sites and chat rooms. Cyberangels Executive Director Parry Aftab has written a book on the subject.
Other excellent sites are provided by the FBI; by U.S. Customs (see the enforcement section); and by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which also includes information on its telephone tip line, 800 843-5678. That number also can be used to pass on information about suspicious Web sites or chat room requests.