By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 4/6/2006 1:50:40 PM ET 2006-04-06T17:50:40
COMMENTARY

There was a time when predators had to stalk their victims.  Whether it was with a bag of candy to entice a young child, a request to help find a lost puppy, or the promise of a modeling job, the predator was required to step out into the community to identify his next potential victim.  But not anymore.  The Internet and the advent of diary-like blog sites, or “spaces,” make it easy for children and adults alike to post their electronic diaries.  Potentially 750 million readers could read these daily journal entries.  Federal authorities believe that at least 500,000 to 750,000 predators are “on-line” on a daily basis, constantly combing through these blog sites, crawling around in Internet chat rooms and on-line dating services, pretending to be someone and something they’re not.  Internet predators sometimes attempt to pass themselves off as a peer of a child they meet on the net.  Both adults and children may post deeply personal information on their blog or space site that was once reserved for the little personal diary with a lock and key, the one they hid under their mattress.  Now millions have a key to your diary, and you’ve given it to them.

Taylor Behl was a typical teenager, in her case graduating from high school and heading off to college in a new town.  She maintained a personal webspace on one of the well-known sites used by teenagers.  In addition to posting her picture on her “space,” she also wrote about her likes and dislikes and her various interests and activities.  By doing so, she opened the door to her mind and her heart to anyone who wanted to enter, making herself vulnerable to any predator who took the time to read her entries.  One such reader was Ben Fawley, a man she met on-line and someone now charged with her murder.  Taylor was killed only two weeks into her freshman year of college, perhaps because she trusted too much or gave up too much personal information in her blog site.  Behl’s alleged murderer says she died during rough sex.  But it appears that her believed assailant would never have had the chance to put his hands on her had she not revealed so much about herself in her blog.  I write about Taylor, as I followed the investigation concerning her disappearance and the finding of her body in a shallow grave some 70 miles from her dorm room.  So much lost potential. 

But Taylor is not by far the only person who came into contact with her murderer, rapist, or assailant via the Internet.  Kacie Rene Woody was thirteen when she met an on-line predator from California in an Internet chat room.  Authorities believe 47-year-old David Fuller tricked Woody into believing that he was also a young teenager in order to get personal information from her that led him to her rural Arkansas residence.  It was there, just one month after their initial “meeting” on the Internet, that Fuller kidnapped Woody from her home.  I say “kidnapped” because it appeared that young Kacie valiantly fought for her life before she was carried away by her assailant, someone who left her shoes and her broken eye glasses behind.  Police and FBI Agents identified Fuller through his Internet messages, and traced him to a commercial storage unit.  As officers opened the door to the unit they heard a shot, one fired by Fuller as he committed suicide rather than be arrested.  Woody, who had been sexually assaulted, was already dead from a gunshot wound.  Fuller’s activities led authorities to believe that Kacie might not have been his first Internet victim, noting that victims of predators can run into the hundreds.

The list of Internet victims is much longer and even more gruesome, including both children and adults who first met their attacker via the Internet.  Every time I think I’ve seen the depth of human behavior, the worst example of depravity possible, some predator crawls out of the slime and shows me something even worse.  I guess I’ve grown partially numb to such monstrous and sociopathic behavior over the years, but I still know that we can save some of these potential victims if they became more educated and savvy concerning risks in life—in this case, the Internet.

The FBI believes that at least one in five children get sexual solicitations while on-line, usually by an adult posing as a child or teenager.  The predator weaves a psychological web to entice his victim to provide more and more personally identifying information, usually including photos, telephone numbers, school activities, and even a home address.  As parents we wonder how our children can be so naïve, while our children wonder why we can be so paranoid and so out of touch with the times. 

There was a time when children had a baseball glove in one hand and a tennis racket in the other.  Now young people have an iPod and a computer mouse.  Their world is self-contained and they, like the many Internet predators surfing the net, need not leave the relative safety of their bedrooms to talk to people across the world via the Internet.  High school and college can be tough for anyone, especially those not in the “in” groups, but the Internet and blog sites allow you to reach out to the world without actually meeting face to face, something I believe to be a serious threat to some.  You can tell a lot from meeting someone in person.  You can tell how he or she responds, how they dress, look at you, and is he really the 17-year-old boy he says he is when replying to your blog.  You have no history of this person, other than what they’ve written you.  We know that upwards of 50% of people lie on their resumes.  Shouldn’t we expect the same percentage from their anonymous blog site entries?  There are over 18 million teenagers on line at any one time.  At least 25% are on blog and “space” sites.  As these millions of children and millions more adults navigate the highways and byways of the Internet, they need to be aware of the back roads and rest stops that can pose a threat to any who enter.  The physical world and the cyber world are wonderful places to visit and all should seize the opportunity for travel.  But know where you’re going at all times.          

The threat is not just to children though.  Adult women and men have become victims of someone they met on the Internet.  A 70-year-old Canadian woman was dubbed “the Internet black widow.”  Allegedly she would identify a man via the Internet, eventually marry him, and then poison her new husband to gain access to his money.  She had a 15-year history of fraud and impersonations, including feeding one husband a lethal dose of prescription drugs and them running over him with her car.  In another case in the western U.S., a 26-year-old man used Internet chat rooms in an attempt to set up a mass suicide on Valentine’s Day across the U.S. and Canada.  At least 25 women had “signed up” to take part in this suicide.  Some of these women talked about taking the life of their children first.  Why Valentine’s Day?  Some people believe that should have a significant other, especially on February 14th.  They allow their low sense of self worth and self esteem to make them vulnerable to a stronger, perhaps charismatic person, someone like, for example, the Rev. Jim Jones.  Jones founded The Peoples Temple, initially an interracial mission for the sick, homeless, and jobless.  In 1977 Jones moved his flock from California to Guyana, where on November 18, 1978 the group of 638 adults and 276 children committed a mass suicide when all “willingly” partook of a fruit drink laced with cyanide and sedatives.  Following the leader can be fatal.

The bottom line is that thousands of predators and potential stalkers are on-line daily.  Many will lie about who they are, how old they are, and what they want from you.  What many want is to develop a level of rapport that will allow them emotional intimacy and ultimately physical contact with their new “victim.”  What they need to develop this relationship is information.  Unfortunately, if someone has a nefarious purpose in developing this relationship, he or she can find all the information they need to get inside of your head from your blog or “space” musings.  And it’s not just creeps that are trolling the Internet blog sites to read your postings; it’s your college, your parents, and your future employer.  What you say about yourself and the pictures you post are there for life, floating in cyberspace waiting to be read and, worse, used against you. 

Here’s what you need to do.  Think of anything that you write or post on a blog as you would a large tattoo on your forehead.  What do you want people to read about, or see about you six months or six years from now?  Many later try to remove the physical tattoos that they got on some late night spur of the moment, but there are few “take backs” on both your blog and “space” postings.  Like Kacie Woody, should you give a potential assailant just enough information to track you down, or consent to meet the wrong person, your mistake may be fatal.  Visitors to blog and “space” sites have grown by the tens of thousands in just the past year.  Although you could meet the man or woman of your dreams via a blog or Internet dating site (my oldest son did), you could also meet the person of your nightmares.  For all I wish pleasant dreams, but be careful and please, be safe when traveling in cyberspace.  Accidents can prove to be fatal.  

(For more information concerning personal security, see www.LiveSecure.org.)    

Van Zandt Associates

LiveSecure.org


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