Countless people are putting their most personal information on the Internet and right into the hands of dangerous predators and cyber stalkers.
Seventeen-year-old Taylor Behl is believed to have been conversing with her alleged killer, Ben Fawley, through a Web site where she kept a personal blog. She was found murdered last October.
David Ludwig is accused of murdering his teenage girlfriend's parents back in November, before leading police on a national manhunt. The 18 year old used the Internet to carry on a secret relationship with 14-year-old Kara Borden without her parents' knowledge.
Now, the Internet may be providing significant clues about Jacob Robida, the alleged attacker behind a shooting at a Massachusetts gay bar.
Rob Stafford of “DATELINE NBC,” who has taken a look at the dangers posed by these social networking sites, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt and also Del Harvey of the group Perverted Justice joined Rita Cosby on 'Live and Direct’ to talk about the dangers of the WEB.
To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.
RITA COSBY, HOST, 'LIVE AND DIRECT’: One of the biggest dangers is Myspace.com.
ROB STAFFORD, “DATELINE NBC” CORRESPONDENT: Rita, Myspace is big and getting bigger, five million new members expected this month, 25 percent of the members are under the age of 18. So the big question is, Do teenagers really understand the potential danger of posting personal information on line?
It's free, easy to join and easy to message its members. Kids chat about everything from school to sports to fundraisers for Katrina victims. It all seems like innocent fun, and it can be. But many parents and teens are unaware there are hidden dangers.
It's a cyber secret teenagers keep from tech-challenged parents not as savvy as Margaret, a world where the kids next door play any role they want, but may not realize everyone with Internet access, including sexual predators, can see the pictures and personal information they post.
When “Dateline” surfed MySpace, we found scenes of binge drinking, apparently drug use, teens posing in underwear, and other members simulating sex and, in some cases, even having it. We also found less provocative pages like Shannon's was, but potentially even more dangerous. Teens listing not only their names and addresses, but even cell phone numbers and their after-school schedules.
Internet lawyer Parry Aftab started the Web site WiredSafety.org and her safety tips appear on MySpace.com.
Aftab says even kids who don't list their name and address can provide enough personal information, such as the kinds of bands and boys they love, for pedophiles to use to con their way into their lives.
Then, Aftab says, look at their site. Are the pictures provocative, their profiles too detailed? Who are they talking to? And perhaps most important, have they kept their profiles private, protected by a password to keep strangers out?
MySpace declined to talk on camera, but did say via e-mail that it prohibits posting personal information and has a team that searches for and removes both underage users and offensive material. MySpace also said it does not prescreen the material posted by its more than 50 million members but urges everyone to be cautious.
Bottom line, Rita, every expert will tell you parents should not count on anyone other than themselves to monitor what their kids are doing online.
COSBY: Right, it's up to the families. You know, besides MySpace.com, Rob, what can parents do about the other dangers? There's instant messaging, chat rooms.
STAFFORD: Well, instant messaging is huge, not just for high school kids, but middle-schoolers, even elementary school kids. Parents need to talk to their kids, ask them for their buddy list to find out the list of people they're instant messaging with, go down that list. Some kids have 200, 300 names on that list. And if the parents don't know who those people are, they should be deleted.
COSBY: Clint, what can you do to avoid getting caught in the Web with dangerous cyber-crooks? Some of the things that Rob was reporting, some of those numbers are staggering, 500,000 to 700,000 predators online every day? I mean, when you look at those numbers, those are whopping numbers. How disturbing is that, Clint?
CLINT VAN ZANDT, FORMER FBI PROFILER: Well, these are whopping numbers. And it goes past grade school and teenagers, Rita. It goes into adults. Men and women trust like teenagers do. And they share the same type of information.
There's stories that I've dealt over the years of women who have met someone on the Internet, who have wound up being a sexual assault victim or a murder victim.
One case last year, a guy got on the Internet and he solicited over 25 women all to commit suicide on Valentine's Day with him, and they were all signed up through these chat rooms and Internet to do this. So there is a lot going on, and people have to be careful not only of what their teenagers share, but what you and I as adults share, too.
COSBY: Absolutely. Everybody has to be aware of how vulnerable they are.
You know, Del, you've done some amazing stuff. You've been on my show before, where you actually went undercover and posed as a young child sort of luring people in. How easy is it for these creeps to go after people online from your experience, Del?
DEL HARVEY, PERVERTED JUSTICE: Incredibly easy. All you have to do is take five minutes to create a profile and you're there.
COSBY: You know, who are these people, also, Del? You know, who are these guys who are going after them? Are they married? Are they all ages? What's sort of the range and some of the extremes you've seen?
HARVEY: Every age range, every profession. Last “Dateline,” we got a doctor, a rabbi, a special education teacher, guys in the military. The “Dateline” that we have coming up, we got a federal immigration agent, I believe, a lawyer. I mean, these are your kids' teachers. These are your next-door neighbors. These are the people that you rely on and trust.
COSBY: Yes, it's scary. And as you said, they're betraying that trust.
You know, some of the other figures. Two-thirds of the kids were on these sort of social networking sites. They provide, as we were hearing, age and first name. Sixty percent give their location and contact information. One in 5 give their full name. You know, Del, what message do you have for parents tonight watching?
HARVEY: That sites like MySpace and Friendster are great for adults. There's virtually no real reason that your kid should be on a social networking site, especially not one where there's such a chance for an adult to really prey upon them.
We actually ran this “Dateline” that's coming up tomorrow, we ran into a guy who has a MySpace account with hundreds of pictures of teenage males on his page, pictures of him with them. And he can use that just to create even more trust. You know, “Look at the guys I've met. I'm safe.”
COSBY: Yes, it's frightening. You know, and, Clint, real quick, what can we do? I mean, obviously, these companies are doing the best they can to keep barricades, but it does come to the home, right?
VAN ZANDT: It comes to the home. You've got to realize, Rita, 50 percent of the people lie on their resumes. So how do we expect anything less on MySpace?
And what I tell kids and adults, too, think of anything you post as a tattoo on your forehead. Who do you want to be looking at that tattoo tomorrow, six months from now, six years from now? Once you put it up there, even though you try to take it down, people are pulling it down, they're pasting it, they're keeping it. When you put that information out in cyberspace, it's there forever.
Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.