By Isabel Mascarenas
TAMPA - Parents teach children at a young age to not talk to strangers, but it's a lesson that seems lost when it applies to the Internet, a place cyber crimes experts call a playground for predators.
- The term "predator" covers more than just sexual crimes! The Internet is also a "playground" for many other criminals as well, like identity thieves, spammers, hackers, hate groups, etc, but those don't stir up emotions like the sex offender hysteria. Technology is always exploited by people and always will. If someone is intent on committing a crime they will. Parents and schools should be teaching kids common sense and educating them on sexual abuse, privacy, security, etc, not fear mongering BS!
Every time a teenager turns on their smart phone, computer, iPod, Xbox, or any electronic device with Internet access, there are countless of places to travel to and meet people.
"All the bad people in the world have access to you if you have access to them ... With technology, it's becoming a target-rich environment for pedophiles, for people preying on children," says Detective Bill Lindsey with the Cyber Crimes Unit at the Pasco Sheriff's Office.
- Based on the true definition of pedophile, pedophiles are rare and not the norm like the media continually tries to make it seem. Just because someone molests a child, that doesn't mean they are a pedophile!
Lindsey says one popular site is Meetme.com. It claims to have 90 million members as young as 13 years old. Until last year, users knew it as Myyearbook.com, described on Facebook as "a social networking site for teens." Members have live webcams, where Lindsey says predators solicit videos and pictures.
Lindsey says, "The kinds of adults that are getting on Meetme.com and meeting children are doing that with malicious intent."
Unlike sites such as Facebook that will match one up with mutual friends or interests, sites such as Meetme.com will recommend people based on where one lives. 10 News checked for sexual offenders and predators and found 314 within a 5-mile radius.
Lindsey says, "It's terrifying. Parents don't know how much danger their children are in."
- If the parents and schools were educating their children, then this wouldn't be much of an issue, now would it?
Lindsey says teens often give away too much information online, listing schools, interests, and hangouts, providing predators with a road map to them and to trouble.
"We've had juveniles who have met adults online because they were their suggested friends, and adults take advantage of that online relationship, set up meetings in person, and engage in unlawful sex with minors," says Lindsey.
"In my situation, he wasn't a predator. He was a normal guy who swept me off my feet. I fell in love with him," says 18 year old Alexis Carrascos. Her nightmare began when she is 16 years old. She says, "To think all this started online from me posting a little too much information."
When Alexis met her ex-boyfriend, she thought it was a chance encounter. Later in the relationship, she learned he stalked her on Facebook first through mutual friends and pictures she'd tag online while out with those friends.
Alexis says, "If I could go back and un-tag myself in all those locations I would. It could have saved me a lot of trouble, a lot of heartache, a lot of lessons I think I learned too early in life."
- You can as far as we know.
Alexis says three months into the relationship she learned her 17-year-old boyfriend was really 18, and she says he became aggressive. Alexis says, "He started being very pushy, very jealous, very controlling."
And she says he became very violent, from grabbing her to punching walls. The break up included a restraining order against him. "He would stalk me," she says.
Alexis says she needed therapy plus extra protection. Alexis started carrying a taser and a trained dog for protection. Six months after the relationship ended, she's learning to trust again. "I'm still very alert with who sees my things, who likes my things, who's my friend on Facebook or Instagram or whatever."
- This is how everybody should be. Don't post personal information at all.
Her advice to teens is to use caution online. She says, "If you don't know them, don't friend them. You don't need to necessarily tell people where you are because it's so easy for a predator, anybody that looks like a normal person, to become a stalker, to become possessive or abusive, lead to something that you don't want."
Meetme.com says it has "zero tolerance for abuse" and has staff to monitor images posted 24/7, Lindsey says, "Meetme.com is the most proactive of the social media online at policing their own website. They make an incredible amount of complaints to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children."
Detective Lindsey and Alexis say that doesn't replace parents from keeping an eye on their kids' online activities.
Alexis says, "This generation, we're too friendly. We think no one is going to cause us harm."
Detective Lindsey advises parents to know their child's passwords and frequently review each account with them. Also, make sure each friend is someone they know. And don't stop at Facebook; he suggests checking all their online accounts, including messaging sites such as kik, Twitter and Instagram.