Many parents have a deep-seated and understandable fear of strangers approaching their children in the street, but there's just as much danger posed by strangers on the information superhighway.
Two members of the Franklin County Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force addressed a group of Block Watch coordinators from the Northland area last week, outlining the multiagency effort formed in 2009 to find and arrest online sexual predators.
To date, said Homeland Security Special Agent Cameron Bryant, the task force has arrested more than 400 people -- and the pace is picking up.
"We're easily at one a day," Bryant said.
Predators use a variety of social networking sites and, although they're on the wane, chat rooms to select their victims, the special agent said.
These predators, almost exclusively men, seek to gain the trust of their victims, primarily girls ages 12-15, said detective Zane Kirby of the Columbus Division of Police. The men pose as boys of their victims' age, he said.
"Behind the computer you have a certain element of anonymity; you can be anyone you want to be," Kirby said.
Taking advantage of this, the predators make the girls feel wanted and special; they comfort and compliment them until the teenagers feel the person who understands them best in the whole world is their new online friend, Kirby said.
Then the attempts at exploitation begin.
Kirby recounted arresting a man a few weeks ago who met a girl on Facebook while posing as a teenage boy. They grew close, and he eventually convinced her to take nude photos of herself and email them to him, according to the detective. The next step involved a text message to the girl from someone indicating he had purchased the cellphone of the now ex-boyfriend and was in possession of the pictures, and outlining just what she would have to do to get them back.
The task force targets "computer-facilitated crimes against children," according to its website, which includes not only attempted exploitation but also child pornography. Agencies involved include not only the sheriff's office, Columbus police and Homeland Security but also the Upper Arlington, Westerville, Grove City, Whitehall, Pataskala and Grandview Heights police departments, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
"It's a problem that we're just chipping away at," Kirby said. "We put one away, two more pop up, and there isn't anything we can do about that."
Predators arrested by the task force have come to central Ohio from all over the country intending to meet their victims, Bryant said. They also come from the same neighborhoods as their intended targets.
"Typically these predators are very secretive," he said. "They don't want other people know about them other than their prey."
Those arrested on charges ranging from attempted unlawful sexual conduct with a minor to disseminating matter harmful to a juvenile to several other statutes, both state and federal, that the task force uses have a high rate of suicide, Kirby said.
"They can't face the shame," he said. "They can't face their families or their communities or their bosses, and they take the easy way out."
Both men said they want to spread the word about online predators through presentations to potential victims in schools, but have been stymied in this -- Bryant by federal red tape in Washington, D.C., and Kirby by education officials who are initially enthusiastic about the idea only to back off for whatever reason.
"But we're trying," Kirby said.
"This is not to scare everyone that the Internet is a bad thing," Bryant said. "It's just to let people know that there are bad things out there."
Speaking on a personal level, the Homeland Security special agent said he has a 15-year-old daughter, a freshman in high school who gets straight A's. He trusts her implicitly.
He also does a deep forensic examination of her computer and cellphone at least once a month.
"The key to this whole thing is parental awareness," Bryant said. "Know who each and every one of their friends is. Check their phones and their emails. Be in their lives. We're doing it for their safety."