Predators looking for teenage girls or boys have a tool that makes it very easy for them to find and groom their victims and millions of teens are playing right into their hands.
I wouldn't be writing this column if I thought I were spilling secrets or, in any way, aiding adults who have an inappropriate interest in teens but, unfortunately, predators tend to be very good at what they do and most of them probably already know about what I'm about to tell you.
The sad fact is that it is very easy to find teenage victims in your community, thanks to an online social networking service called MySpace.com. This advertising-supported site, which was acquired last year by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, presents a veritable smorgasbord of teenagers, organized by community and high school.
If you know the name of your local school and the sex and age of teens you're seeking, you can find them on MySpace. What's more, in most cases, you can find pictures, names and photos of their friends, details about where they were born, what they like, and where they hang out. In many cases, you can also find their full names and cell phone numbers.
As an experiment, I used the site's search function to look for 16- and 17-year-old "women" who attend the high school near where I live — where my kids went to school. Within seconds, I was presented with a list of 198 girls who were registered on the service. Including boys, there were 577 listings for "current students," which represents about a third of the school's student body.
The search function allows you to specify age, starting at 16. MySpace's terms of service say that it's open to people 14 or older, but there is no age verification process to prevent younger kids from setting up an account by lying about their date of birth.
One of the girls, who is 16, has a sexually suggestive word as part of her user name. Thanks to MySpace, I have a pretty complete picture of her life. I know the day she was born, the hospital she was born in, her full name, where she goes to school, what she likes to eat, what time she goes to bed at night and her favorite fast-food restaurant. She gets along with her parents "sometimes." In the past month she says she has consumed alcohol, eaten sushi, been to a mall, and gone "skinny dipping." She says she has shoplifted at least once, wants to be a lawyer and would like to visit Egypt. Information such as this, which used to take predators months to extract from a child, can be skillfully used to help win a child's confidence.
Thanks to several pictures on her site, I also know exactly what she looks like and have seen pictures of many of her friends and am able to access her friends' profiles as well. This girl lives within a few miles of my house. Some of the pictures were clearly taken at the local high school.
With this information it would be pretty easy for someone with bad intentions to find this girl. Then the question is, "What might happen?" Hopefully, the young lady would have the sense to avoid the person but, armed with enough information, predators can be very good at persuading would-be victims to comply with their wishes.