The Anatomy of a Predator

Protecting Your Children from Molesters in Cyberspace

A chapter from Parry's book, "The Parents Guide To Protecting Your Children In Cyberspace"

The greatest risk our children face in connection with the Internet is having no connection to the InternetThere have been many cases recently where pedophiles and other adults have lured children into off-line meetings and molested them. Luckily, there are even more cases when such attempts to lure a child have brought about the attention of law-enforcement groups. I debated whether I should discuss any of these cases, because I did not want to sensationalize them. But if explaining the methods used by offenders might make parents more aware, and their children safer, it's worth it.

Cyberpredators, just like their offline counterparts, usually aren't the scary, hairy monsters in trench coats we imagine standing on a dark street corner. Many are the kind of person you would be inviting to your home as a guest, and often have.

They are pediatricians, teachers, lawyers, clergy, vice cops, welfare workers, journalists, Boy Scout leaders, baseball coaches, scientists, etc. They are almost always men. (Sometimes women are accomplices, but rarely are women the molesters.) They are often articulate and well-educated. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, and they can be very rich or out of work. But they have one thing in common: they want your child.

Most of us are sickened at the thought of an adult having sexual relations with a child, but to be able to protect our children, we must get into the mind of the predator.

First of all, predators often don't see themselves as predators. They see themselves as loving partners with the children they molest. To them this isn't rape, it's a seduction.

And, as with any seduction, it's a slow and painstaking process. (Predators have been known to wait more than two years, collecting data on a particular child, before striking.) That's what makes them hard to detect. They don't appear to your child to be dangerous.

An FBI agent who shared a panel with me recently said it best: "Before the Internet, these people had to get physically close to your children. They had to lurk near schoolyards, or playgrounds. Kids would see them. Adults would see them. It was a dangerous situation to be in for them, because everyone would notice an adult male lurking around children. They often had to take jobs and volunteer positions that allowed them to work with children in a position of trust in order to reach their victims. Now, however, the personal risks the pedophiles had to expose themselves to in order to be around children are gone. Now they can be 'one of the kids' and hang out with your kids online without exposing themselves. As long as they don't say or do something in the public room that makes them stand out, they can stay there forever, taking notes."

Many of them do. They have been known to create large databases on children. They track the children's likes and dislikes. They track information such as whose parents are divorced, who doesn't like their father's new girlfriend or their mother's boyfriend, or who likes computer games or a particular rock group.

Kids often share personal information about their lives in chatrooms or on profiles. This is one reason why they shouldn't.

It Doesn't Take Torture For Them To Spill Their Guts.

Here's a mock chatroom discussion that my law-enforcement friends and I agree is pretty realistic. Imagine a predatorial pedophile sitting and taking notes on this child, and using this information to lure them later. Would your child fall for this? Most, unfortunately, would.

Child: I hate my mom! I know it's her fault that my parents are getting divorced.
Predator: I know. My parents are getting divorced, too.

Child: We never have any money anymore, either. Every time I need something, she says the same thing: "We can't afford it." When my parents were together, I could buy things. Now I can't.
Predator: Me too. I hate that!

Child: I waited for six months for the new computer game to come out. My mom promised to buy it for me when it came out. She promised! Now it's out. Can I buy it? Nope. "We don't have enough money!" I hate my mom!
Predator: Oh! I'm so sorry! I got it! I have this really kewl uncle who buys me things all the time. He's really rich.

Child: You're sooooo lucky. I wish I had a rich and kewl uncle.
Predator: Hey! I got an idea! I'll ask my uncle if he'll buy you one too....I told you he's really kewl. I bet he'd say yes.

Child: Really!? Thanks!!
Predator: BRB [cybertalk for "be right back"] . . . I'll go and call him.

Predator: Guess what? He said okay. He's gonna buy you the game!
Child: Wow, really? Thanks. I can't believe it!!!
Predator: Where do you live?

Child: I live in NJ. What about you?
Predator: I live in New York. So does my uncle. New Jersey isn't far.

Child: Great!
Predator: Is there a mall near you? We can meet there.

Child: O.K.. I live near the GSP Mall.
Predator: I've heard of that. No prob. What about Saturday?

Child: Kewl.
Predator: We can go to McDonald's too if you want. We'll meet you there at noon.

Child: O.K.. Where?
Predator: In front of the computer game store. Oh! My uncle's name is George. He's really kewl.

Child: Great . . . thanks, I really appreciate it. You're so lucky to have a rich and kewl uncle.

Saturday arrives, and the child goes to the mall and meets an adult outside the computer game store. He identifies himself as "Uncle George" and explains that his nephew is already at the McDonald's waiting for them. The child is uncomfortable, but the uncle walks into the store and buys the $100 game. He comes out and hands it to the child, who is immediately neutralized and delighted.

Stranger-danger warnings are not applicable. This isn't a stranger-he's "Uncle George," and if any proof was needed, the computer game is it. He gets into Uncle George's car without hesitation to meet his friend at McDonald's. The rest is reported on the 6 o'clock news.

It's disgusting. It makes us sick to our stomachs, but it happens. Not very often, but often enough that you need to be forewarned. (Several hundred cyberpredators are caught and arrested each year.) Even once is too much, though, if it's your child. Knowing how they operate and the tricks of the trade will help you teach your child how to avoid being victimized.

The Script --- How They Operate Online

Each case differs, but the pedophiles tend to use the same general tactics. Aside from the "bait and switch" scam discussed above, they often attempt to seduce a child. They want the child to "want" them. They begin by striking up a conversation with the child, trying to create a relationship of trust and friendship. They often masquerade as another child or teenager, typically of the opposite sex, unless the child has indicated homosexual interests. (The child may or may not know the "seducer's" real age by the time they meet face-to-face.) Phone calls usually start at this point. Sometimes gifts are sent to the child as well, which may include a Polaroid camera and film.

Once they have broken down barriers of caution, they begin introducing sexual topics gradually, often with the use of child pornography to give the child the impression that other children are regularly involved in sexual activities.

Then they begin to approach the child's own sexuality and curiosity, by asking questions and giving them "assignments," like wearing special underwear, sending sexually suggestive photos of themselves to the pedophile, or performing certain sexual acts.

These assignments eventually broaden to the exchange of sexually explicit photographs (using the Polaroid) or videos of the child. Finally, the pedophile attempts to arrange a face-to-face meeting. (He may also have divulged his true age or an age closer to his actual age at this point.)

Why It Works

All the lectures we have given our children from the time they are very young about not talking to strangers aren't applicable online, where everyone is a stranger. A large part of the fun online is talking to people you've never met.

In addition, our children's stranger-danger defenses are not triggered when other kids are involved. The warnings apply only to adult strangers, not to other children. If any of us walked up to a child in a playground and tried to strike up a conversation, they would ignore us and probably run away. But if an unknown eleven-year-old came up to another eleven-year-old in the same playground, they'd be playing in ten seconds flat! That's how the pedophiles get in under our kids' stranger-danger radar --- they pretend to be other kids.

And children often believe what they read and hear. They "know" things about the predator because they believe what he told them. They also believe what they read about him in his "staged" profile, which supports what he told them. So it's not just true, it's confirmed.

There are many stages at which the pedophile can be thwarted by an observant parent. In addition, children with healthy friendships and a strong, open, and trusting relationship with their parents are less likely to fall victim to pedophiles online. Pedophiles typically prey on a child's loneliness. They feed the child's complaints about her home life --- creating an "us-versus-them" atmosphere. "Your mom is so mean to you! I don't know why she won't let you _______." (Fill in the blank with whatever we regulate: makeup, malls, concerts, etc.)

This atmosphere does two things: It creates a distance between the child and her parents, at the same time bringing the child into a special secret alliance with the pedophile. (You should know that boys are almost as often the victims of molestation as girls are.)

Anatomy of a Real Case

I have followed many cases over the last few years. In my role as WiredPatrol executive director, I've also been responsible for reporting a few of these to law enforcement and for helping many families through the pain of prosecution. Sometimes we just help the families survive what the molestation has done to them. (The child isn't the only victim --- entire families are torn apart in the aftermath of a molestation. Parents feel guilty for not having protected their child, siblings don't know how to treat their fellow sibling --- the pain can continue for a lifetime, and even more.)

When cyberpredators are involved, I work very closely with the FBI, particularly their Innocent Images Unit. Innocent Images is the FBI's response to the problem of pedophilia and child pornography on the Internet. Started in 1993, during the Web's infancy, it is now an integral part of the FBI field offices, all coordinated through the FBI's Baltimore office (the home of the first case where someone used the Internet to lure children). To find pedophiles, the Innocent Images Unit investigates tips and also goes undercover online, posing as children. Since it's a federal crime for someone to cross state lines to have sex with a minor, they target people in chatrooms who are willing to travel to meet the "child" they are chatting with. They also pose as adults with an interest in child pornography, and find and arrest those distributing it.

One case I reviewed several years ago involved a New Jersey teenager and an Ohio adult predator. It was one of the earliest reported cases of cyberpredatorial conduct. Luckily, the liaison was discovered before the girl met the man face-to-face. But it had gone on for a year and a half before being discovered by the girl's mother. As you read the details, think about what could have been done to discover the situation earlier and how you can use these precautions to protect your children.

Paul Brown, Jr., an Ohio resident, was forty-six years old. He was also unemployed, weighed over four hundred pounds, and lived in a basement. He had accounts with AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe. Mary (a hypothetical name for the young girl involved) was twelve when her mother, a school teacher, bought her a computer, reportedly because Mary was having problems making friends. When she got online, Mary posted a message on Prodigy, in the spring of 1995, looking for a pen pal. In her message she described herself as a teenage girl. Paul Brown, Jr,. responded to the message, using his real name (something they often do, surprisingly) but identifying himself as a fifteen-year-old boy.

Brown and Mary maintained an e-mail and telephone relationship for several months. As the relationship became more involved, they began writing letters, and Mary sent Brown a photograph. He told her that he was living at home with his mother and was hoping to find a girlfriend. In early August, Brown asked Mary for a "favor."

"If I sent you a roll of film, could you get one of your friends to take pictures of you in different outfits and maybe hairstyles? Makeup if you use any, and different poses. Some sexy, if possible. Please. Baby for me. Thanx. You're the best. Love Ya."

Mary complied. For the next eight months, they continued to converse and correspond, and Mary sent additional photos. Brown encouraged her with juvenile antics, such as using stickers in his letters to her saying things like "Getting better all the time!" In May 1996, Brown sent Mary a special love note. "Saying I love you . . . seems to be an understatement. At the age of 14 you have captured my heart and made it sing . . . I love everything about you. . . ."

Shortly thereafter, Brown confessed to being in his twenties. He also suggested that Mary videotape herself in sexually provocative poses. She did. After Brown had reviewed her videotape, he returned it to her with instructions to redo the tape and include views of her genitalia and breasts. He later admitted to being divorced and in his thirties.

He reportedly also sent her small gifts from time to time. A few months later, in response to Brown's promise to pass copies of the tape to four members of a rock band Mary admired, she sent additional videotapes to Brown. (Brown told Mary that he knew the band members very well.) Each tape sent to Brown was designated for a different member of the band and contained sexually explicit conduct.

Brown apparently had also sent her his size 48 underwear. When her mother discovered the underwear, the authorities were notified. Tracing Brown through phone records, special agents of the FBI in Cleveland seized the videotapes and photos of Mary and of more than ten other teenage girls from across the country.

Mary was fourteen when this was all discovered. Brown pled guilty to enticing a minor to produce sexually explicit photos and videos and was sentenced to a little less than five years in prison (the maximum penalty for a first offense). In a written statement to Brown following all of this, Mary said, "I trusted you. I thought you were my friend."

There are several things that stand out in this case. One, interstate phone calls were made by Mary. Parents should always be reviewing long-distance bills for suspicious calls. Two, Mary was lonely. These kinds of children are often the most vulnerable; a parent should be involved in their online friendships, and monitor their online lives. And, three, as hard as it is to know what our kids are doing when we're not around, especially if you are a single parent, a year and a half is a long time for a relationship to be going on undiscovered. You should spend time learning who your children's friends are, online and off.

But Monday-morning quarterbacking is always easier than playing the game in real time. We may look at the situation and say that could never happen to one of our kids. However, there but for the grace of God go all of us....

Knowing your child is lonely and has problems making friends is the first sign that the child may fall prey to a pedophile or cyberpredator. Predators can spot lonely children. They can also spot kids who are new online and may not yet know all the rules. Most teens, when surveyed, admit to having been propositioned online. But what may be obvious to a cyberstreetsmart kid may not be so obvious to a child not yet familiar with cyberspace.

Pedophiles befriend these kids and patiently build trust and a relationship --- looking toward the day when they can meet face-to-face.

Encourage your children to make online friends, but keeping the computer in a central location and learning about their online friends is an important way to avoid these secret relationships. Education is important in avoiding this danger, too. (Had Mary been forewarned about how pedophiles operate online, she may have been more attentive to how old Brown sounded on the phone, and been more aware of his classic tactics.) So is control over incoming and outgoing information when younger children are involved, using technology blockers, monitors, and filters. These kinds of situations can be avoided if you plan ahead, educate and communicate with your children, and keep your eyes open.

Parry Aftab
Executive Director
WiredSafety Group

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