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7/29/97 On-line ‘instant’ messages growing threat to children

FAIRFAX, Va. (BP)–Shyla Welch was expecting news from her mother when a notice popped onto her computer screen.
“Care for an obedient male?” the sender asked.
What was meant, Welch explained, was “a submissive sexual male.”
As Welch sees it, “I should be able to get on my on-line service without being subjected to this.”
Welch works for Enough is Enough, an organization in the fight against pornography. At home, she uses America Online — a service with Internet access in which “instant messages” can jump onto a user’s screen.
“I received two approaches from married men who asked if I was interested in having an affair,” Welch said. “I was not in a chat room … and yet I’m found.”
AOL’s instant message service enables members to speedily communicate with selected others without entering the added computer commands involved in electronic mail (e-mail). The receiver’s screen name is all that’s needed.
While AOL currently is the only major Internet provider with instant messages, it recently developed a version that will work with other on-line providers. It can be downloaded free from AOL’s home page.
The danger with such features comes from pedophiles who use the Internet to find children. They get their contacts from user profiles, which subscribers supply when signing on with AOL.
“I highly recommend that parents eliminate profiles,” Welch said.
That can be easy with AOL. Click the “find” button at the top of the computer screen “tool bar,” then type in “user profile.” A screen will show your profile information, which can be removed by pushing the “delete” button at the bottom.
The user profile material is not used for billing. Questions include name, age, family members and hobbies. AOL is the world’s largest Internet provider with more than 8 million members. Any subscriber can search the profile list for information about other subscribers.
AOL also has a “Buddy List” service, which appears on a user’s computer screen as a small window with stored names and issues an alert when any of the individuals come on-line. They can then be sent an instant message.
“AOL does have parental controls,” Welch said. “Unfortunately, a lot of parents don’t know what they are.”
Additionally, those controls are limited with instant messages. You can choose to receive all or none. Block the messages and there’s no instant access to family. Accept and you’re open to strangers.
With Buddy Lists, meanwhile, AOL enables a user to screen individuals to keep the user’s name from their lists.
“Private message is the number one tool of child predators,” said Colin Gabrial Hatcher of Cyber Angels, an Internet safety organization.
“All chat services have this,” he added.
They just give it a different term. At the “Palace” they call it “whisper.” Visitors in those chat rooms can see your screen name and ask to meet you in a private room on-line.
“They operate in secret,” said Hatcher about pedophiles.
And that’s when they ask for information like an address or telephone number.
“A child who’s 12 years old thinks she’s talking to a peer — and he’s a 46-year-old male,” said Rubin Rodriquez with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“You don’t know who this is at the other end.”
The FBI got involved back in May 1993 with a missing child report connected to the Internet. George Burdynski was 10 years old when he disappeared from Brentwood, Md. Investigators never solved the case, but the agency did find men using children for sexual pictures.
The FBI sent agents on-line to trap child predators in an operation called “Innocent Images.” They have since made 250 searches and convicted 112 people.
“Kids are naive,” said FBI special agent Linda Hooper. “They don’t ever think that information will be used against them.”
Rachel Lindhome was in an AOL chat room last year when she received a message from Robert Mortellaro, a 34-year-old Florida resident.
Mortellaro asked if she wanted to see pictures of child pornography, and he recounted having sex with a 10-year-old girl.
“All of a sudden my heart stopped,” said Lindhome, a 27-year-old telemarketer, in a story in the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune.
Lindhome contacted an attorney, and that led to FBI involvement.
Mortellaro sent 70 pictures which included bestiality and sex with infants. Police arrested the man at a Vero Beach mall when he tried to meet a 13-year-old girl from the Internet.
“It’s a mammoth problem,” said Paul Cardin with Oklahomans for Life, a family organization. Chat rooms and instant messages, he added, are “like telling your kids to go out in Central Park at night and find some new friends.”
The Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act in June that would have provided more legal protection against on-line pornography. Now the problem has worsened as a result of the court ruling, observers say.
Pat Callahan, an attorney in Washington, publishes a small newsletter for property owners and has an account with AOL. She opened her e-mail recently and found eight advertisements for pornographic sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web.
“I don’t go into chat rooms,” she said. “This stuff is coming into my mail box unsolicited.”
David Tackett also witnessed the problem for himself. He went on- line as a 14-year-old girl in research for a seminar about the Internet. Tackett is a member of Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
His new screen name was “Missy,” and he just sat in an AOL chat room.
“Within five minutes I probably had eight people trying to instant message me,” he said. “It was quite scary.”
One man asked “Missy” what she had on under her pants.
“Gross!” Tackett responded.
“Get over it,” the sender typed.
Hatcher with Cyber Angels said, “The Buddy List is a great concept,” but noted, “Every week we get requests for help from people on AOL who are being harassed.”
Parents can lessen the danger with prevention, said Shyla Welch from Enough is Enough:
— Remove yourself from profile lists. This will keep people from finding your name in a record search.
— Encourage children to never give out personal information like their real name or address.
— Remove the instant message service for full protection. Technology hasn’t developed to screen individuals.
— Block adult chat rooms.
“A lot of people use the on-line world as a dating service,” Welch said. “Far too much information is being divulged by youngsters. … If you’re a vigilant parent, it doesn’t have to happen to your child.”

    About the Author

  • Clay Renick