Predators eye new ground
In the realm of people who use the Internet in an attempt to lure children, there is a new tool: Xbox 360 and similar game systems. Cyber predators have wasted no time figuring out how new features on the wildly popular game system can put them in contact with children.
The game systems allow voice communication for direct, "real time" contact between players, in addition to instant messaging or chat rooms used by other games.
Child advocates fear direct contact might make the games a new hunting ground for computer savvy predators.
"Predators used to go to playgrounds where they would hang around swing sets and monkey bars. Now we have a virtual playground. Unfortunately it's just as easy or easier for predators to go online and look for kids," said FBI Special Agent William Shore, who directs Pittsburgh's computer crimes task force.
His colleague, Special Agent Marc S. Southland, said advanced Xbox and similar game system misuse by predators is not widespread in this area, but it happens. Parents need to know about it, he said.
Most of the recent media attention in regard to cyber predators has focused on sites like myspace.com, which many teens use to post personal Web sites. In contrast, Xbox misuse is not yet on the public radar, said John Shehan, who directs the cyber tip line for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"There are relatively few of these cases but unfortunately, we're hearing about them," Shehan said.
An alleged cyber predator used an electronic game system in an attempt to lure a Harrison Township youngster. Investigators from the computer crimes task force said the startling news was uncovered last month after a preteen used a friend's Xbox game last month and through the headset the online player insisted that he be the only play the game with him and that "only he understood" the local youth. The friend's mother heard the youth repeatedly say he had to go, told him to end the game and told the youth's mother, who contacted the authorities.
The Valley News Dispatch does not generally identify victims of some types of crime. Authorities declined to reveal specific information as the investigation is ongoing.
Police in a California city and Missouri town declined to comment when asked if there were similar investigations under way there.
In Pittsburgh, Detective Michael Overholt said last year a city youth appeared to be a target of cyber luring through a gaming system. The youth's mother quashed the effort but later declined to prosecute.
In Butler, state police Cpl. John Stepansky said a New York man tried to get a Butler youth to meet him until the child's parent intervened.
Youngsters are often abducted because of information that predators can find out about them online or elicit from the child on the telephone, said another state trooper who trains local police to do cyber investigations.
Children may think that they are chatting with someone their own age and sex, but they may not be, said Trooper Rob Erdley.
"If in the conversation they suggest that they meet, saying they're a young female, the next thing you know a 21-year-old is waiting in the lot and the child is abducted," he said.
That's why cyber-safety education for kids is essential, he said. "Let them know the dangers of the Internet."
Youngsters shouldn't be online when parents aren't home and can't check on what's going on, he said.
The state attorney general's office is also concerned.
"We are aware that Xbox and online games can be a conduit between adults and kids," said spokesman Nils Hagen-Frederickson. "The people who out there stalking children on the Internet are hunting and they're very good at stalking their prey," he said.
Xbox 360's manufacturer, Microsoft, would not directly discuss the potential predator problem. A company spokeswoman, in an e-mail, said "providing a safe, secure environment for all consumers has been a part of the Xbox story from the beginning."
Microsoft has "led the effort to build-in safety measures" that "enable parents to choose the right playing and viewing settings for their family,"she said.
The Xbox 360 game console has "enhanced Family Settings," she added.
PlayStation2 and the upcoming PlayStation3 are sold by Sony.
"Since PlayStation2 isn't involved in this case," Sony has no comment, company spokeswoman Kimberly Otzman told a reporter.
New Kensington Detective Sgt. Tom Klawinski, who is a member of several computer crime task forces, points out that the games have a hard drive. "They're basically a different type of computer," he said.
"Parents need to investigate where their children are going on the Internet," Shehan added.
"Someone is paying the telephone and Internet bill. Is it the kids• Not usually," Detective Overholt said.
"This all falls back to the parent's responsibility," said Allegheny County Detective Tim Haney.
Parents should also check the communications of their older children who use laptop computers away from home, said U.S. Postal Inspector Joe Bellissimo.
"What about cyber cafes where kids can go online?" he asked.
Libraries and other public places also have computers, said Detective Lynn Havelka, an investigator for the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.
The officers are members of the same joint computer crime task force.
"The bottom line is that parents should monitor what games their kids play, including online games, just as they should monitor how they spend time on the Internet and other forms of media generally," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nevertheless, one researcher believes the online predator threat potential is limited at best.
"I certainly have seen some reports, but I certainly wouldn't convey that games are the most dangerous high-risk environments," said David Finkelhor of the Crimes against Children Research Center at University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H.
"Wherever you have young people congregate online, you do have danger.... I wouldn't say it's more dangerous than a local park or bowling alley or any other place where a child can encounter an adult," said Finkelhor, who is from Pittsburgh.
At the same time, Finkelhor's groundbreaking 2001 national survey of children revealed that almost one in five of young Internet users had received a unwanted sexual solicitation within the past year.
"This is not the first time that I've heard Xbox Live being used," said David Delmonico, an associate professor at Duquesne University's School of Education.
Delmonico said parents must remember they are parents.
"You don't need to know much about the technology. Your existing parenting skills allow you to show the kids ways to stay safe," he said.
Internet safetyThe National Center for Missing and Exploited Children operates the 911 of the Internet. It handles reports of child predators and child pornography and refers cases to police. Contact the center at: Cybertipline.com
If a parent suspects a predator has contacted a child or if a child is sent pornography or inappropriate numbers, telephone the child predator line at 1-800-843-5678, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
To access an Internet safety guide, go to: www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguide.htm