During the four years he was missing, both Shawn Hornbeck and his family were all over the Internet — he, on a variety of social networking sites, posting photos and messages, while they were with a website seeking clues and assistance in their desperate search for him.
In a chilling twist, CBS News correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports, Shawn and his parents may have crossed paths online more than a year ago. Someone going by "Shawn Devlin" - the last name of the accused kidnapper - visited his parents' online message board and wrote "how long are you planning to look for your son?"
Could he have been using the Internet to drop digital breadcrumbs?
"It can be surprising how much information is in plain view," says former FBI agent Ed Stroz. "If you're a law enforcement official, you wouldn't want to be turning a blind eye when the individual that has been victimized may have been putting information about themselves online."
Stroz says it's a long way from the traditional search methods of the past. "I wouldn't stop with the milk cartons, but I don't think it's enough," he explains.
Now, he says, searches must extend well beyond homes and streets.
"The neighborhood of the person includes where they go on their computer," Stroz says.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of places online where kids can mingle with friends or strangers, but with all these Internet footprints, if a child goes missing, searching online can become like finding a needle in a stack of needles.
A new survey from the Pew Center says more than half (55 percent) of online teens have a personal profile and almost as many (48 percent) visit social networking sites daily.
"It is essential that you have computer expertise as part of your strategy to be able to do an investigation," Stroz says. "It's no longer the side show."
It's another new tool that parents and police hope will produce clues in the virtual world that can lead to more reunions in the real one.
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