Online traps for kids: who's really on the other end?

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- As parents, we're constantly reminding our children of "stranger danger" in public venues, and now with the technology boom, we often hear the term "internet safety." However, are we really as careful with our children on the internet as we are at the local community center or an amusement park? Nowadays, children are getting their first cell phones at a very young age. I got my first cell phone when I was 11 years old. Whether it's cell phones, MP3 players, gaming systems or tablets, children have access to the internet anywhere they go. The days of "be home before dark" are long gone because many children are staying at home to play online. As parents, we may not be as worried for our children's safety since they're in essence sitting less than twenty feet from us, just browsing the web. We can physically see they are safe as compared to trying to find them among 50 other children at the park, and this can create a false sense of security. We need to remember, though, that stranger danger doesn't only apply to our children in person, but online as well. In fact, the internet allows predators to pretend to be children in order to get closer to their victims and entice them to provide photos, turn on their webcams or even meet in person. The internet can be accessed with the simple touch of a button, yet we may not take the same precautions to keep our children safe as we do in public venues, and this can be very dangerous.

I recently briefed a group of children and their parents in San Angelo, as part of an Operations Security community outreach program on internet safety and how predators are using the safety of their own home to prey on kids, who may be physically safe in our homes. After bringing up social media and messaging apps, a young girl, no older than 12 years old, brought up a recent incident that blew me away and her mother who was hearing this for the first time. This young girl was using one of these apps when she received messages from another user claiming to be a seventeen year old male in the Air Force, and also claimed to be the son of an FBI agent. If she didn't comply with his demands to talk to him and date him, then he would have his FBI employed father arrest the young girl and her whole family. This obviously raised many red flags, but what also shocked me was that the mother and her daughter were unsure whether to report the incident or not. After hearing the rest of my briefing they understood this is the exact tactic predators use to get to our children. I was relieved to hear that they planned to report the incident as soon as my briefing was done and luckily, the smart girl had saved the messages.

This incident just shows that a seemingly innocent app can be used for not so innocent acts against our children: Many parents are becoming skeptical of a harmless children's app where there is an animal on the screen and will actually respond with gestures to whoever is talking to the animal. When placed in 'Child Mode' the dialect is rather harmless, however, when child mode is turned off, the dialect can become questionable. Many parents are also wary of the webcam feature on this app that turns on so that the talking animal can respond back to your gestures. Although there have been no official warnings or findings regarding this app, many parents are still hesitant to allow their children to play on the app. The growing danger of phone apps should raise flags for parents everywhere. It is no longer our job to only protect children in public, but protect them even at home, where they should feel safest.

Unfortunately these incidents occur every day; if you have seen the shows where they catch predators, you know exactly what I am talking about. Federal officials recently busted an international child pornography ring involving victims in 39 states and five countries. Among them were three victims from Lubbock, one from Amarillo, two from San Angelo, four from Tyler and five from Dallas. Yes, you read it correctly, two victims from San Angelo. They thought they were chatting online with a teenage girl and were convinced to provide sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves. When asked why they hadn't mentioned anything to their parents, many of the victims stated that they were afraid they would get in trouble with parents. We need to make sure we are communicating with our children the true dangers and risks of these new apps that seem to be coming out of nowhere. Below are some basic guidelines to help children stay safe online.

· Make sure you thoroughly check your security settings on any of your social media accounts.
· Be aware of game chat rooms and conversations that may take a wrong turn.
· Never give out any personal information such as a phone number, name, address or any surrounding landmarks.
· Turn off your webcam when not in use. Put an adhesive bandage or piece of tape over it as an extra precaution.
· Don't be afraid to say something. Report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.

There are numerous credible sources online if more information is needed. There is a Parent's Guide for Internet Safety provided by the FBI on their website as well. If you have any questions, feel free to contact your Unit OPSEC Coordinator or the Wing OPSEC Program Manager, Chris Hernandez at 325-654-5399.