Stranger Danger Doesn’t Work In The Real World or Online World
Recently, I have been reading articles online from some experts who say that parents should be teaching online “stranger danger” given the risks of online predation. As an online safety advocate, child safety advocate, and a law enforcement professional I can share with you that teaching “Stranger Danger” in the real world or online world does not work.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Traditionally, parents have taught their children to be aware, and to never talk to strangers. Well, statistics have shown that the person who will likely abduct your child will not be a stranger, but rather someone who you and your child probably know, love, or trust. I often hear parents tell their children to not talk to strangers; the irony here is that the predator will not likely be a stranger, and that parents themselves often violate this rule over and over again when they tell their child to:
“Answer the nice man’s question!”
“Say hello to the nice lady.”
“Tell the nice man your name.”
Parents need to understand that no matter how many times they tell their child not to talk to strangers, they are still going to do so anyway in their day-to-day activities. Technically, a new store clerk, a new teacher, a new babysitter are all, by definition, “strangers” who I guarantee your child will converse with. Soon, as a matter of repetition, your child will begin to question your position that strangers are bad people, because most strangers that they are interacting with are nice people who do not want to hurt them.
**Important teaching point**
“DON’T TALK TO STRANGERS” isn’t a rule, but a highly flexible and incomprehensible concept that only mom and dad understand, if they truly understand it at all.
Children do not easily understand stranger profiles. In fact, when I teach children between the ages of 5 and 10 years about safety, I ask them the following question, “What does a stranger look like?” Some of the answers I get back from the children include:
Someone who wears dark clothing
Someone who likes to wear a hat and sunglasses
Someone who dresses in dirty clothing
Someone who stinks
Someone who likes to wear a mask and wig
Although all cute answers, it proves the fact that children do not understand “stranger” profiles, and that most have their own unrealistic beliefs of whom they believe their real threat will actually be.
Teaching “Stranger Danger”
A fellow child safety advocate in the United States, Gavin De Becker, has stated the following:
“If you are a parent who is trying to scare your child safe there will be two likely results; it won’t work and the parent loses credibility or, it will work and the child will be afraid.”
Mr. De Becker further goes on to say,
“Fearful Children are easily exploited by sexual predators who threaten to harm parents, pets, or the children themselves. These predators use fear to control; they almost never have any intentions of carrying out the threats. Children are so afraid of strangers that they will comply with any order. Most predators are interested in children who will co-operate because they are afraid.”
Teaching “Stranger Danger,” in my opinion, is nothing more than attempting to scare the child safe, which doesn’t work, and according to De Becker, plays right into the hands of a child predator. In fact, speak with any educator and they will tell you that when a child is frightened, learning stops. This is an important reason why I believe that when teaching children, we need to “enlighten and not frighten.” Every time I go to an elementary school, I often go to the school’s library and look for the book, “Berenstain Bears Stranger Danger,” and about 95% of the time, I find it. This book is dark, scary, and gothic in artistic form, and bases the content on scaring children to fear strangers. This book should be removed from all schools because the underlying message it promotes, “stranger danger,” is flawed.
The Faults of Teaching Stranger Danger:
“All Adam’s small life we taught him not to take candy from a stranger, all the things that we thought were appropriate. But we also taught him to respect authority figures unequivocally: that he should be a little gentleman. I think if we had put more emphasis on the fact that he had the right to say no, maybe the outcome of his case might have been different… …he might have been alive today if he wasn’t such a little gentleman”
Besides some of the concerns that I have already mentioned, there are several other faults to teaching stranger danger:
1. The message implies that strangers are only bad people, and not someone you know.
What good is this rule when many who want to abduct or sexually exploit your child will be someone who you and the child know, love, or trust?
2. The message implies that if in trouble, don’t seek help from a stranger.
The irony here is that if the child needs help or assistance, and you or another safe person or safe place is not near, the ability to approach and ask a stranger for help is the single greatest asset your child could have.
3. The message provides an peace of mind.
I have heard many parents say that they don’t need to hear my message about child safety, because they have taught their child not to talk to strangers.
4. The message does not allow children to develop their own inherent skills of evaluating people and behavior.
This is a skill that is needed throughout life, but parents often teach their children to not pay attention to this important safety instinct.
Point number four needs to be emphasized. Children who are allowed to communicate with strangers are exercising their intuition, which is needed to stay safe, thus learning what FEELS comfortable and what does not. A child who can actually approach a stranger in public is less likely to be a victim than a child who is taught to never talk to strangers. This important fact is something that I nurtured in my son as he was growing up. At the age of four, when we would go to a restaurant, my son, Brandon, would ask for crayons and paper. If the waiter or waitress did not bring him his favorite colored crayon (orange), he would ask me to approach the waiter to get him one. Instead, I would have Brandon approach any of the waiters who he thought would help and ask them for his orange crayon. Another way I would nurture my son’s intuition was when we were out shopping at the mall. Often Brandon would ask me for the time and instead of providing him with an answer, I would encourage him to approach a man or woman who he thought could provide the time, and ask them instead, which he freely did. Again, in both circumstances, Brandon was learning to approach people whom he did not know (strangers) who he felt were safe for him to get assistance from.
Remember, from a child’s perspective, it is much easier to understand dangerous situations and actions, rather than stranger profiles. I hope I have convinced you that we need to get away from teaching “stranger danger” because it just doesn’t work.
“Teaching children to avoid all strangers isn’t useful. If children develop a fear of strangers, you’re setting up a dangerous situation. If they’re ever alone and in trouble, they’re isolated from help”
-Careful Not Fearful
Much like the real world, the online predator, although likely not going to be someone who the child knows, loves, or trusts, will likely first creep the child and the groom the child over time online to break down the stranger stigma.
The secret to online safety specific to sexual predation is to teach our kids about online “situational danger” rather than “stranger danger,” but to do this we need to know and understand who the online predator is and how they operate (the grooming process) to prey upon our kids online. If both parents and their kids understand the process, then they can identify it early enough, thus hopefully not becoming another statistic.
The Online Predator Who Are They?
When we think “internet predator,” most will imagine someone who is preying upon our youth, utilizing technology, for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Most internet experts agree, however, that there are, in fact 4 categories of internet predators:
1. The Emotional/Psychological Predator: this is the internet dating predator who will make you feel good, but wound you emotionally. These guys are chameleons and emotional shape shifters who change their tactics to keep you around.
2. The Sexual/Physical Predator: This is the pedophile that preys upon our children.
3. The Reputation Predator: This is the person who will look to purposely damage your good reputation via spreading falsehoods or utilizing cyberbullying.
4. The Financial Predator: This is the person who will utilize the Internet to scam you out of your hard earned money.
Specific to the sexual predator, most internet predators are:
Very computer savvy and blend well into the cyber world
College graduates who are clean cut and outwardly law abiding
Have successful careers, and use their position in society to throw off any suspicion
Usually middle-aged males who appear to be trusting to both parents and children
The internet and its anonymity offers a virtual place for the online predator to hunt their prey with relative freedom be it for an emotional, financial, physical, or reputational crime. Many of these predators are extremely knowledgeable in youth subject matter and current events, and they are able to speak with teens using current online lingo. They are experts at what they do, conducting research, and knowing how to build rapport quickly with their intended target. Of real importance is that these predators can be anyone, and as the group “Perverted Justice” has shown, they can be police officers, lawyers, actors, doctors, teachers, coaches, and CEO’s.
Although there is a belief out there that the internet predator that specializes in child pornography does so to make money, research has found that most distribution of this type of material is done on trade rather than for financial gain. Child pornographers like to expand their collections by trading with one another, and the internet has been a boon to not only this type of activity, but also in the sharing of “trade secrets” such as how to “cyber-groom” and lure our children for sexual exploitation and how to avoid law enforcement detection.
According to experts, there are four categories of internet child sexual predators to be aware of:
This is a group of sex offenders who are interested in collecting child pornography, and usually do not want to meet a child in person.
This is a group of sexual offenders that will target children for the purpose of making a face-to-face meeting to have sex with them. These predators will become completely obsessed with the child they have targeted, and will travel vast distances to meet the child.
This group of sexual offenders includes both collectors and distributors of child pornography. Not all collectors are manufacturers, but all manufacturers are collectors. These predators financially profit from selling child pornography. Often, this predator will entice the child/youth to create their own sexually inappropriate “show” via a web cam that they will now record and sell for money.
This group of sexual offenders rarely attempts to meet their victims face to face and often do not collect child pornography. Instead this group prefers to have cybersex or phone sex on sites such omegle.com.
Why Does the Internet Fuel these Sexual Predators?
It offers easy and anonymous access to children and youth from around the world 24/7.
It presents risky online behavior that children and youth engage in while online such as posting too much personal information in their non-secured social network, or even the willingness to freely interact with on-line strangers on sites such as Omegle.com, that the predator can hook into and take advantage of via social engineering. In our introduction we stated that the research has consistently demonstrated that sexual predation (luring) cases typically involve teens who WILLINGLY meet with adults KNOWING they will be engaging in sexual activities. This same research has shown that the youth who are at the greatest risk on-line, in all areas of risk discussed in this book (especially sexual exploitation in all its forms), and targeted by these predators are usually the same youth who are at greater risk in their off-line real world activities. Often these are the youth that have significant psychosocial challenges, intentionally engage in risk from their peers in the form of sexual solicitation, sexual harassment, cyberbullying and have parents that are ineffectually involved in their on-line activity.
It offers virtual validation from others of like-mindedness where they can share their conquests.
It offers easy access to the thousands of child pornography sites, pictures, and video that is available 24/7.
It offers the thrill of being chased by law enforcement, which they see as a challenge.
Like it or not, the internet has provided the perfect forum for these predators. The internet has ignited the deviant sexual appetite of the pedophile, who can now engage in their behavior 24/7, usually undetected, thus allowing them to target our children with the click of their mouse.
The Grooming Process and Building Rapport
Many internet predators, especially sexual predators, will engage in a grooming process. The primary goal of the grooming process is to build rapport and make the potential target feel comfortable with him, in the hope that you will want to meet him face-to-face at some later time. It is not uncommon that once a potential target has been identified, the predator will often play the waiting game and work long periods of time in order to build rapport.
Although hard to identify, they can be anyone; the internet predator will often follow a standardized grooming process that looks similar to the following:
The predator will often “Stealth,” “Chicken Hawk,” or “Creep” chat rooms and social networks to gain information on a potential target, whether it’s through information contained in the target’s profile and actual chat room text messaging content.
Once the predator has gained the information needed to build rapport with their intended target, they will initiate contact in the chat room or social network.
At some point in the chat room interaction, the predator will ask their target to P2P (person to person chat), “DM” (direct message), or “whisper.” Why? Because the predator wants to cut their prey from the herd for privacy.
Once the predator and target have whispered for a while, the predator will often ask the target to engage in a conventional e-mail relationship, which will allow for a longer and more private relationship without having to log into a chat room, thus further increasing anonymity. It is also at this point that the predator will request that you tell no one about your interaction with them.
Often after a prolonged e-mail relationship, the predator will now request a conventional phone conversation, again, to build rapport, with the ultimate goal of having a private, face-to-face meeting with you.
If the goal is not a face-to-face meet, but rather inappropriate sexual behavior online (often known as cybersex), the predator will very slowly break down sexual barriers.
It is not uncommon that the predator will “test the waters” by introducing sexual language and content into conversations.
As their target become desensitized to this sexual language, they may start to send sexual pictures/video (sometimes of them) based upon an incremental process.
Once their target is hooked, and they sense that their target is withdrawing from a conversation, they may start to use threats (cyberbullying) such as sending pictures, video, and text messaging that you were involved in with him, to parents and friends.
Often during the grooming process, the predator will use a variety of rapport “lures” to hook their intended prey. Some of these lures include:
“Send me a DM, go P2P, or Whisper.” Here they want no witnesses.
“Where’s your computer in your house?” Here they want to know if parents are potentially watching.
“Who are your favorite band, movie, and designer?” Here information obtained can assist in building rapport based upon similar interests.
“I know someone who can get you a modeling job.” This is an ego-boosting lure their goal is to make you feel special.
“I know a fast way that you can earn some money.” This is usually through web cam pornography that the predator will say offers some anonymity. Just have a look at how many voyeur sites are now available online.
“You seem so sad; tell me what’s happening in your life.” The sympathy lure. They are good at the “listening game.”
“What’s your phone number?” This usually happens later in the grooming process, but once obtained, can reveal where you are located and in some cases, using internet 411 technology, can reveal your actual address.
“If you do not do what I ask, I will tell your parents, or post your picture(s) in a blog, webcam directory, or file-sharing network.” Classic threat lure.
“You are the love of my life.” Sure you are!
In May 2010, Ryan Earl McCann, 20, was convicted and given an 8 year prison sentence in the province of Ontario for socially engineering 22 young women, some as young as 14 years, for luring and grooming them to perform demeaning sexual acts online under the threat of physical violence or the public online release of chat/video that the youth had participated in with him. McCann would initially chat (groom) with his victims on Facebook (after being invited in as a friend) or in MSN Messenger. McCann would have these young women remove their clothing, sexually touch themselves and perform simulated sex acts all under duress. McCann was known to the courts and the media as the “Webcam Puppeteer.” This was due to his ability to socially engineer his victims and make them do what he wanted them to do sexually in front of their webcam for himself and others to see.
Social Engineering: How The Predator Gains Information:
Social engineering is how an internet predator will use personal information that they data-harvest online about you to use to their advantage for criminal, personal, sexual, or financial benefit. Often this information is obtained from chat room dialogues, social networks, blogs, and search engines such as Google or www.pipl.com. As an example of how an internet predator will socially-engineer a social network, here is a fictitious profile that has “TMI” (“Too Much Information”) that was posted on the MSNBC web site as a learning tool:
Many Social Networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace look very similar to the above noted hypothetical “Yerplace” site, and often, much like the above example, offer too much information that can be used by a potential predator to socially engineer an innocent target. So let’s look a little closer at some of the less-than-desirable information that is contained in this example, which can be easily exploited and socially engineered to build rapport by a predator:
Listing your school location and year gives a predator an idea of where you live, as well as a clue as to your age. In this posting Jane posted that she is in junior high, revealing that she is actually younger than the 16 years of age that she had posted in her “Basic” information field.
Jane listed her afterschool job, and even the location where she works. When this information is combined with the picture that is provided of Jane, it makes it easier for a potential predator/stalker to track Jane down.
The Ultimate Survey:
Posting your answers to surveys such as this, reveal a lot about who you are as person, including your personality and hobbies. An on-line predator posing as a “friend” could easily pretend to share your interests (social engineering). Here, Jane even mentions that “Thompson Park” is her favorite hangout, again making it easier for a predator/stalker to track Jane down.
Here, Jane mentions that she likes to celebrate by drinking Coronas, even though we know she is younger than 16 years of age. Whether it is a joke or not a mention of inappropriate alcohol or drug use, may come back to haunt you in the future. Colleges and employers are now using the internet to check out potential candidates. What one posts on their website now may surface years down the road.
You will also note that Jane provided her instant messaging (IM, MSN, or AIM) screen name to everyone. Instant Messaging is one of the preferred methods of communication by predators, because of its private nature, and therefore should never be provided to anyone other than a face-to-face friend you know personally.
Consideration should also be given to avoid group shots that are going to be posted online, unless your friends have given their permission first. Linking these pictures to photo album sites like “Photobucket” or “Flikr,” should also be reconsidered due to the fact that these sites often feature information about these teens that can become very searchable by others, revealing information such as their home address and even vehicle license plate numbers.
Jane’s Friends Space:
Does Jane really have 323 friends? One of the badges of honor in some of these social networks is to have a large number of friends. The larger the number friends one has, the more popular you must be. To a potential predator, the larger the number of friends that a person has, the more likely you will invite him in as a friend as well, and once in, unless mediated via privacy settings, this person now has access to all the information contained in your site. Keep your “friends” list limited to people who you really know, and have met in person face-to-face. Remember when a person has been accepted on your friends list, they receive all “bulletins” that you send.
It’s also important to take note of what your friends posting about you on your site. In the above noted example, although Jane was very good about not revealing her last name in her profile, one of her friends referred to her as “Anderson.” Social engineering is all about data mining and often predators will drill down in a potential target’s site to gain as much information as possible. This is why it is very important that you read and edit all comments that your friends write on your site that may provide TOO MUCH INFORMATION.
In our internet safety seminars, we demonstrate how we have been able to socially engineer young girls online, via their social networks, to obtain their home phone number and address, where they go to school and where they might work and here’s one of the ways we do it:
We will “creep” a social network, chat room, or blog that has not been locked down primarily looking for those who have more than 150 friends.
Once we have creeped the site for an extended period of time, getting to know our target covertly, we will create our own page and develop a profile matching the sex, age range, likes, and dislikes of our intended target. We do this because we know that many youth before inviting an unknown person into their site as a friend, will check that person’s page and profile to ensure they are who they say they are.
Once this fake page has been created, we will then initiate contact with the target and ask to be invited in as a friend. In the vast majority of cases we get invited in and accepted as a friend. This now gives us greater access to information about our intended target.
The next thing we do is look for the target’s last name, which can usually be located if you spend the time to look around their site.
With this last name, and given that in the target’s profile we can usually locate the city in which the target lives, we next go to 411.com, plug in the last name of the target, and the city they are located in, hit enter, and poof several phone numbers now appear. If the target has a rare or unique last name, this process is even easier.
We next start dialing each one of these phone numbers and ask for the target by name and once we get a positive reply, we now have the target’s phone number.
We next take this phone number and plug it into an on-line reverse directory and poof now we have an address.
With the address, we now go to Google maps, plug in the address, and now we can plot directions as how to get from my residence to the target’s location. Even better yet, I can go to Google Street View and download an actual picture of the target’s house.
It’s that easy, and thus why it is very important that our youth learn to protect their digital footprint online.
As you can appreciate, the above noted MSNBC hypothetical profile contains way too much information that a predator can use to social engineer a potential target. Although this was just a hypothetical profile, all you have to do is go visit Facebook, Instagram, or Tumblr to see the real thing. Obviously many of our youth, and young adults who create their own social networks and blogs do not understand the dangers of too much information, and how the Internet predator can and will use their information to his advantage. Social networks are cool places to surf and interact with friends and people of similar interests from around the world. Having said this, however, not everyone is who he or she makes himself or herself out to be while online.
Digital Food For Thought