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Parents, don't let kids wander online alone

Two years ago, Carissa Bair thought it would be cool to create her own MySpace Web page on the Internet.

So, without her parents' knowledge, the girl, then 11, went online with the help of an older step-sister and opened an account. She gained access by claiming she was 17 -- MySpace requires users to be at least 14 -- then posted photographs of herself to the site.

Upon learning of the MySpace account, her mother, Carol Yurechko, accessed it and discovered that someone claiming to be a 17-year-old, Pittsburgh-area male had tried to communicate with Carissa.

"I guarantee you, he wasn't 17," said Yurechko, who suspected the male was much older because the language he used on his profile was that of an adult, not a teenager.

Yurechko, of Jeannette, had the site deleted. Her daughter is forbidden from creating another MySpace account until she is older.

After a presentation Wednesday night at Hempfield Area Senior High School on the dangers of posting personal information to the Internet, Bair said she is more than happy to abide by her mother's rule.

"With all the predators out there, I won't create another one," Bair said. "It's frightening."

Greensburg attorneys Anthony Bompiani and Tony Perrone, along with Wendover Middle School guidance counselor Rosemary Sovyak, put on a two-hour presentation last night for some 25 parents and students on the dangers of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. David Frattare, a special agent with the state attorney general's Child Predator Unit, was unable to attend.

MySpace and Facebook allow users to create free Web pages where they can post photos and personal information. In most instances, the Web sites can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. Sexual predators, according to the presenters, use the sites to locate potential victims, often gaining a child's trust by posing as a child themselves, ultimately persuading the youngster to meet them in person.

Parents last night learned one in five children who use the Internet have been solicited for sex. Four percent, according to statistics presented last night, had sexual predators try to contact them in person.

"It has become increasingly alarming how easy kids are being lured into a predator situation," Sovyak said.

Approximately half of the parents in attendance last night indicated they were surprised by those statistics, and by reports of criminal cases in Pennsylvania involving adults who solicited sex from children online.

Parents learned they can protect their children by monitoring their online habits, either with computer software or by allowing children to access the Internet only on computers located in a common area of the house. They can visit Web sites, including www.familywatchdog.us, that list names, photos and addresses of convicted sex offenders.

Bompiani and Perrone said last night's presentation was the first of its kind to be presented by the Young Lawyers Committee, which is part of the Westmoreland County Bar Association. The committee wants to make such presentations available over the next year, upon request, to parents' groups and students.

"We want to make parents aware of what their kids are doing online," Perrone said. "Parents are a little naive. Their kids are computer savvy."

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