Children’s Safety On The Line On-Line Services Offer Minors A New Way To Get In Trouble

What could be safer for a teenager than staying home to peck away at a computer keyboard? Plenty, it would appear from two recent cases of teenage runaways lured from home by computer users they met on-line.

A 13-year-old girl missing for two weeks from her home in suburban Louisville, Ky., was picked up Sunday by the FBI in Los Angeles. Before running away, Tara Noble had spent dozens of hours exchanging e-mail with people, including a San Francisco man who promised, “We can run around our room naked all day and all night.”

Her parents, searching her room after her disappearance, also found sexually explicit images transmitted through the computer.

Last month, 15-year-old Daniel Montgomery of Maple Valley, Wash., ran away to San Francisco, using bus tickets mailed to him by a man he met in an America Online electronic chat room for gays.

Both cases involved teens who suddenly started spending hours on the computer - and parents who discovered too late what their children had been doing on-line.

Chat rooms, the anonymous gathering places that are popular features on all major on-line services, provide entertainment and genuine social exchange for millions of people who regularly dwell in electronic worlds called “Flirts Nook,” “Over Forty,” “Best Lil’ Chat House” and “Gay and Lesbian.”

While the instances are still few, there has been increasing use of services such as America Online, Prodigy, CompuServe and the Internet’s World Wide Web to lure adolescents into relationships and sometimes personal encounters with sexual predators.

The same cyberspace tools are frequently used to distribute pornographic materials, including sexually explicit video clips.

“The scary thing is that these individuals, sometimes pedophiles, can be anywhere and can represent themselves as anything,” said Ernie Allen, executive director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In the last few weeks, there has been a series of such encounters that have led young people from their homes on odysseys to meet on-line acquaintances. Some have ended innocently, others have not.

For example:

John Rex, a 23-year-old Massachusetts man, is about to stand trial for the kidnap and rape of two boys - one 12, the other 14 - whom he met through a computer bulletin board service called “County Morgue” that he operated from his parent’s home.

Mark Forston, of Fresno, Calif., used an on-line bulletin board to attract a 16-year-old boy to his home. He has just been convicted of sodomizing the youth.

The Washington state teen spent several days in San Francisco with the man known as “Damien Starr.” The boy, who was found by authorities at the San Francisco airport, returned home last week. He insists he had no sexual contact with his new acquaintance.

“We have handled about 10 cases in the past year,” Allen said. “But it is the nature of these cases and child exploitation in general that they are woefully underreported.”

The Justice Department says only one in every 10 cases of child exploitation ever comes to the attention of police.

The use of on-line services to arrange encounters that lead to criminal activity has raised questions about the adequacy of existing laws on the electronic frontier.

“Under existing state law there is nothing that could be charged,” said Ivan Orton, a deputy county prosecutor in Seattle, talking about the “Damien Starr” case.

Existing laws do apply in some cases.The FBI is looking into whether

“Damien Starr” could be prosecuted under the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of a minor across state lines for immoral purposes.

Orton and his colleagues in Seattle successfully prosecuted 51-year-old Alan Paul Barlow, who sent on-line messages describing his sexual fantasies to 14-year-old girls.

But Barlow’s conviction did not come simply from his explicit on-line chatter. Prosecutors were only able to convict Barlow after he solicited lewd photographs from the two girls and sent them Polaroid cameras to take the pictures.

“Had he just sent the messages, there is little chance he could have even been charged,” Orton said. “When he communicated for the photos, he broke existing statutes.”

A number of states already have legislation governing the improper use of on-line communications and a bill that would establish a national code has been introduced in Congress by Sen. James Exon, D-Neb.

xxxx Computer pledge A pledge for minors who use computer networks: I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number without my parents’ permission. I will tell my parents right away if I come across any information that makes me feel uncomfortable. I will never agree to get together with someone I “meet” on line without first checking with my parents. I will never send a person my picture or anything else without first checking with my parents. I will not respond to any messages that make me feel uncomfortable. I will talk with my parents so that we can set up rules for going on line. For the full brochure, titled “Child Safety on the Information Highway,” available free from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, call 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678).


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