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Family warns of e-mail dangers:

February 28, 2001 

by G. Lisa Potter / Staff Writer

They were a computer savvy family in Brentwood, and they had taken all possible precautions to protect themselves against Internet predators - or so they thought.

Then came the knock on the door, and a Nashville FBI special agent flashed his badge and related that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a suspect in custody who had been regularly contacting their 13-year-old daughter by e-mail.

"I was reeling. A hundred thoughts go through your mind," said the girl's mother, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons. "When we installed our system, we had done everything right to make sure my daughter and our son are safe."

Recently, the Chicago FBI arrested a man who was e-mailing juveniles, pretending to be a young classmate who had moved away from their school, FBI Special Agent Jon Stephens said Tuesday.

"There was no arrest made by the Nashville office. An arrest was made by the Chicago FBI, and the Nashville FBI received a request from them to make contact with a citizen in Brentwood," he said.

Stephens was unable to disclose information about the suspect, who he said was "prowling the Internet in search of young male and female victims." The girl's mother, whom we will call "Mary," agreed to an interview with The Review Appeal, provided she and her family are not identified.

According to Mary, the family had set up multiple blocks, barring access to chat rooms and the receiving or sending of photographs over the Internet, and had set up a fire wall with a content monitor to control language, violence and sexual content.

"According to the FBI, we did everything right," she said. "I have these multiple blocks set up. But the predator had software that searched for key words in member names and various member profiles."

Mary told her daughter not to use "real" information in her profile, but only "fun" information. The girl chose Beanie

"She chose Beanie because she loves Beanie Babies. He could tell by the content it was a child," Mary said. "A lot of children use the year of their birth."

The man instant-messaged her daughter and said, "Hi, my name is Matt and we used to go to school together. I've moved out of state."

"We live in a transitory area. She has a lot of pen pals who went to her school and have now moved away. She thought she knew him, so she sent him a photo of her via the U.S. mail. Now he has her photo and her home address," Mary said. "My big fear now is, could any information about her be given to other people in our area?"

The man continued the charade as he e-mailed the girl daily for four months, telling her he had been grounded by his parents and similar statements to make her believe she was corresponding with a 13- to 14-year-old boy.

Mary said her daughter now feels somehow violated.

"Her sense of trust is gone. Her sense of safety is deteriorated. She felt this was someone she knew. But the FBI agent showed us a photo of him and that helps. She doesn't have to wonder about everyone she sees, 'Is that him?' She has a clear picture of what he looks like and that's important for her sense of security."

The man in the picture looked between 20-25 years old, she said.

Mary and her family are now taking further steps to protect themselves. Her daughter's old e-mail address has been permanently deleted by the Internet provider, and the family is having a burglar alarm system installed in their home.

"We did everything we could to protect our family from this kind of incident and it terrifies me that he could have come here," she said. "He is known to have visited his victims."

"I had a false sense of security on the Internet," she said.

She recommends even further precautions:

Do not use a toy, soccer or the year of your birth for an e-mail address.

Member profiles should be blank, with nothing in them.

If you do not recognize an Instant Message e-mail, delete it immediately. Get all your e-mail addresses from people you meet in person.

Never go into chat rooms.

Never play games on the Internet.

Mary's daughter now wants to visit area schools through the STARS program, to warn them about sexual predators on the Internet. An FBI agent has agreed to go with her, and the hope is that juveniles will be more receptive if they hear it from one of their peers.

"When someone has been identified as a sexual offender, I'd like to see Internet providers give us something to let us know," Mary said. "When he is out of jail he will do it again."

© The Review Appeal & Brentwood Journal 2001

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