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KEEPING YOUR CHILD SAFE ON THE INTERNET

The Internet is a revolutionary development with seemingly limitless potential for enhancing communication and the exchange of information. It is also in the early stages of reshaping our means of commerce.

Yet, the Internet also holds the potential for serious, even criminal, abuse. Of particularly grave concern are the dangers posed by those who use the Internet to prey on children. The examples provided in this brochure are not merely warnings of possible future abuses, but rather documented cases of activities now occurring over the Internet that target children for exploitation.

Our office has developed this brochure to help you as a parent become better aware of some of the dangers of Internet use, the activities of our office and other law enforcement authorities to combat those dangers, and, most importantly, actions you can take to safeguard your children online. I hope this publication will be a help to you in maintaining the use of the Internet as a positive resource for you and your children.

I. POTENTIAL DANGERS TO CHILDREN ON THE INTERNET

Q: How can a child encounter harm using the Internet?

A: Many minors do not realize the numerous personal dangers they may encounter online. For example:

  • A child or teenager may not fully understand that a number of Internet users are not exactly the persons they claim to be online. Pedophiles, who are in reality adults, commonly claim online that they are teenagers in order to gain the trust of minors they meet on the Internet. A masquerading pedophile uses this disguise to his or her advantage in a variety of ways.
  • Internet chat rooms are well-known havens for pedophiles seeking to engage in conversations with young teenagers. Disguising themselves as fellow teenagers, pedophiles visit chat rooms frequented by teenagers. They typically empathize with troubled teens and, once they gain a teenager’s trust, reveal their true age and suggest a real-life meeting. All too often, troubled teens have romantically bonded with their corresponding pedophile while online and decide to meet the pedophile in real life in the hope of participating in a mature (meaning sexual) relationship, even after the teenager learns that the pedophile originally lied to the teenager about the pedophile’s true age.
  • Pedophiles can also trick minors conversing in Internet chat rooms into revealing who they are, even though the minor may believe he or she is not giving out very specific personal information. Pedophiles are very skilled at acquiring bits and pieces of personal information about minors online and it does not take a great deal of information to piece together a youngster’s true identity. For example, chat room participants typically reveal certain aspects of their backgrounds in a file frequently referred to as a "profile." That profile can contain such information as a teen’s personal hobbies or interests, age and community. It is also very common for participants in chat room conversations to ask for the basic physical description of another chat room visitor. Hence, a pedophile armed with the knowledge of a minor’s community of residence, age, general physical description, hobbies (a cheerleader or athlete, for example), can fairly accurately deduce the school the teen attends, what sporting events he or she will be participating in, and gain a basic idea of what the youngster looks like. That is about all any pedophile needs to track down and stalk the minor.
  • Many parents would be reluctant to allow their children unrestricted freedom to use the parents’ credit cards at a real-life shopping mall. Unsupervised children on the Internet can, however, gain access to a world’s worth of shopping malls online and, armed with their parents’ credit cards, can do a considerable amount of online purchasing in a very short period of time. Since very few Web sites engage in age verification of an online purchaser, rarely is a minor blocked from using a parent’s credit card to make online purchases, the way a minor would normally be stopped by a cashier at a real-life shopping mall. Moreover, many banks view a child as an authorized user of the parent’s credit card so that the parent cannot void a purchase made online by the child after the sale occurs, meaning the parent is ultimately responsible for paying the online charges made by the child.
  • There have been several reports of minors using their parents’ credit cards to engage in online gambling by visiting "Internet casinos." Again, several banks issuing credit cards have taken the position that a child’s parents are ultimately responsible for paying off the gambling debts incurred by the child.
  • What little statistical evidence exists on the subject of the actual volume of crime occurring over the Internet points to online auction fraud as being by far the most prevalent form of illegal activity occurring there. In fact, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office was one of the first county prosecutor’s offices in the country to prosecute a person offering thousands of dollars worth of items on a well-known online auction Web site and then failing to send the auctioned items after receiving the money. Minors, typically more gullible purchasers than adults, are all too often victims of online auction fraud.
  • Web sites and newsgroups (which are the Internet equivalent of bulletin boards) contain a variety of textual and pictorial depictions on subjects not suitable for viewing by children. For example, the Internet abounds with:
    • Graphic depictions of pornography, including child pornography and bestiality.
    • "Hate sites," among the most common of which promote Nazism and frequently espouse such theories as "Holocaust nullification."
    • Locations where information is freely available on the purchase and use of drugs or guns and even open discussion on how to commit suicide.

Q: How did the Internet grow to be such a source of criminal activity?

A: There are a number of reasons for this development, some of them fairly complex. One significant factor involves the origins of the Internet:

  • When first created over 30 years ago, the Internet was never intended to be the instrument of world-wide communication and commercial interaction that it has become at the start of the 21st Century. Its original purpose was to provide a means of regenerating critical government computer data necessary to run this country in the case of a devastating nuclear or conventional war. This is why the Internet breaks all computer data up into tiny "packets" of data and repeatedly stores those packets in numerous computers all across the world.
  • As a result, the world-wide reach of the Internet makes it impossible for any one set of laws or any one governmental agency to effectively control what information is stored there because the data exists, literally, in virtually every nation throughout the world.
  • During the 1990s the Internet rapidly and unexpectedly expanded to be used by literally millions of people across the world. As a result of the earliest design of the Internet in the 1960s, however, it evolved into the communication and commercial force that it is today virtually without any government or law enforcement supervision, or input on how to minimize the impact of the more dangerous aspects of Internet use.
  • As governments throughout the world now try to exercise such oversight, they are finding it very difficult due to the world-wide nature of the Internet and the fact that it existed for so long without any controls in place.

Q: Does this mean there is no hope for addressing criminal activity on the Internet?

A: The answer to that question is, fortunately, no. There are promising efforts by governments throughout the world to work together to combat online criminal activity. Negotiations have been underway for more than a year to establish a world-wide agency capable of addressing some of the difficulties of doing so. This does not mean, of course, that the problems posed by the Internet will be solved overnight, but efforts are seriously underway to maximize the Internet’s benefits and minimize its dangers.

II. THE ROLE OF LOCAL AUTHORITIES

Q: What efforts are being taken by my local governmental agencies to deal with crimes occurring on the Internet?

A: Nassau County law enforcement agencies have been among the leaders nationwide in addressing crimes occurring over the Internet. For example, The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office was one of the first county-level agencies to participate in undercover online pedophile stings. We were also one of the first county-level prosecutor’s offices in the country to devote and train in-house staff to investigate and prosecute computer and Internet crime. We have developed a team of prosecutors, in-house investigators and in-house Information Technology personnel who all work together in tackling Internet-related complaints sent to the attention of the Nassau County DA’s Office. In addition, the Nassau County Police Department’s Computer Crime Squad was one of the very first such squads in the country created by a county-level police department. This multi-dimensional team, originating from several different disciplines of law enforcement and the technology industry, is a truly unique approach for a county-level prosecutor’s office in addressing these problems.

Q: Does that mean the majority of work has been completed in addressing the problem of crime occurring on the Internet?

A: Unfortunately, the work has just begun. However, given the efforts of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the Nassau County Police Department, residents of our county can feel confident that Nassau County law enforcement is at the forefront of attacking Internet crime.

Q: What needs to be done in the near future to most effectively deal with Internet and computer crime?

A: In a democracy such as ours, police officers, investigators and prosecutors can only fight crime as permitted under the laws enacted by our duly elected local, state and federal legislatures. There is a dire need for new laws to provide law enforcement with the necessary tools to effectively deal with the rapidly changing cyberspace environment. Also, more resources must be provided to local law enforcement agencies to properly continue the ever-evolving training and acquire the properly updated equipment needed to adequately fight such crime.

Q: What can I do to help the DA’s Office and my local police department in this process?

A: Use your power as a citizen of a democracy to urge your elected officials to act. Write, call, speak to your local, state and federal legislators demanding they enact new laws to deal with these problems, and provide funding to local law enforcement for training and equipment.

III. PARENTAL SUPERVISION OF INTERNET USE IN THE HOME

Q: Are there steps I can take in my home and daily life to protect my children?

A: There are several steps you can take. Most depend on your willingness to learn about the Internet and get involved in what your child knows about the dangers that can be encountered there. Most of the steps you decide to take also are influenced, in part, by your personal philosophy of how to raise your child. This brochure is intended to merely inform you of the options available. The steps you take will obviously be influenced by your level of interest and motivation in protecting your child and by the philosophy you employ in raising him or her.

Q: Is it really necessary for me to learn about the Internet?

A: In today’s world, learning about the dangers of the Internet, and discussing those dangers with your children, is just as important to their safety as talking with them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and inappropriate sexual activity. If you are not able to effectively answer your children’s questions about the Internet, they will seek that information elsewhere, which will greatly diminish your ability to influence their proper use of the Internet.

Q: I guess it can be beneficial to share the Internet experience with my child.

A: Exactly. There are numerous good and valuable uses for the Internet. Make your family’s Internet experience a shared one. Go online with your child and visit the highly informative Web sites that are available. There are also numerous game sites and other fun sites that are completely safe for children of any age.

Q: What should I do about the physical location and set-up of the computer my family uses to access the Internet?

A: Do not leave the family computer which is connected to the Internet in your child’s bedroom. Put it in a central location, such as the family room. Be sure the computer monitor faces toward the center of the room and is not turned to face a wall or otherwise shielded from general view.

Q: I’ve heard it said you should never give out your real name, address or phone number on the Internet. How true is this?

A: As with anything occurring over the Internet, use you best judgment. If you are ordering some products from a known and reputable seller, of course you will have to give some personal information in order to receive the products you have just purchased. Remember, however, that even then you are placing that information at risk, just as you are every time you purchase an item at a real-life store. Your personal information is stored on that company’s computer system, even when you simply go to a real-life store and purchase items with your credit card. It is these computers that criminals are likely to visit to try and steal personal information.

Q: So then, is it okay to give out personal information on the Internet?

A: No, not in most situations. Remember, when you or your child visit a chat room to talk to someone or e-mail is received from a stranger, there is no way you can truly know who that other person really is. Someone can claim to be a teenage female and is really an adult male looking to meet young women.

Q: So as long as I don’t give out my real name, address or phone number, I am safe?

A: Not necessarily. As mentioned earlier, clever criminals know how to piece together little scraps of information to determine you or your child’s true identity. Instruct your child to avoid giving out the exact town where you live (for example, just say "Long Island"). Also teach your child not to give out other pieces of specific information such as what school he or she attends, or what sports or clubs he or she belongs to.

Q: I have heard there is commercial software available on the market known as "filtering programs" to limit what my children can see over the Internet. How effective are they?

A: There are several companies offering filtering programs. Do your homework and learn as much as you can about the pluses and minuses of each program and make your choice based on the level of security you are seeking for your child. Remember, however, that no filtering program is foolproof. Many are based upon recognition of designated words that appear on a Web site or newsgroup listing. Hence, a filtering program set to prevent access to areas of the Internet containing the word "breast" may prevent your child from seeing depictions of nudity, but may also prevent your child from accessing information about "breast cancer." It also means that it is impossible to select every possible objectionable word to place in the program’s memory. So objectionable material may seep through to your child. Moreover, no filtering program is 100% effective in blocking objectionable material, even when properly deployed. And tech-savvy kids can figure ways to bypass a filtering program’s method of protection.

Q: Are there any other computerized means of limiting what my child sees on the Internet?

A: There are. Your Internet Service Provider ("ISP") may have its own internal mechanism for blocking access to objectionable material being transmitted over the Internet. Be aware that a method used by one of the major ISPs must be carefully deployed to work effectively. Under this system, the primary owner of the ISP account is considered to be the "master account" and that person is assigned a screen name (also sometimes called a "user name") and selects a password. That person can then assign other screen or user names to the other users of this ISP account and those other screen or user names have their own passwords; but it is the owner of the master account who can set controls over what the other persons using the ISP account can see over the Internet. It is important, however, that the person in charge of the master account not give out his or her password, because then the people assigned the other screen or user names on the account can access the master account and change the settings governing the parts of the Internet they can and cannot visit. And also remember, no blocking system yet is 100% effective, even when deployed properly.

Q: I’ve heard commercials advertising computer programs which can scan a computer’s hard drive looking for objectionable information that someone downloaded from the Internet. Are such programs effective and isn’t this like reading my child’s diary?

A: Once again, you must be guided by your personal philosophy of child-raising. Some parents believe there are certain private areas of a child’s life or possessions which should not be invaded by the parent. Others feel that if reading a child’s diary or personal mail or e-mail will help the parent learn about the child’s drug use or inappropriate sexual activity, then it is appropriate to do so in order to insure their child’s safety. There are computer programs that will scan a computer’s hard drive (and any other storage medium like floppy or compact disks) to look for any pictures or objectionable material stored there. Remember, however, that no program is foolproof in finding everything you might feel is objectionable.

IV. RESPONDING TO DANGER SIGNS

Q: How can I minimize the risk of an on-line exploiter victimizing my child?

A: The key is to communicate with your child about safe and appropriate uses of the Internet, as well as dangerous and inappropriate on-line activities.

  • Talk to your child about sexual victimization and potential online danger.
  • Use of chat rooms, in particular, should be heavily monitored.
  • Instruct your children never to:
    • upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or on-line service to people they do not personally know;
    • download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance they could encounter sexually explicit images;
    • respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent or harassing.
  • Always maintain access to your child’s on-line account and, again, if you deem it appropriate, randomly check his or her e-mail.

Q: How can I tell if my child is engaging in inappropriate conduct on the Internet?

A: As with any activity involving a child’s interaction with others, there should be some tell-tale signs regarding the change in a child’s conduct which a parent can spot, whether the inappropriate conduct is occurring over the Internet or in real-life. Here are some tell-tale signs of inappropriate Internet use:

  • Is your child unusually secretive about what he or she is doing online?
  • Does your child spend large amounts of time online, particularly at night?
  • Does your child "change screens" rapidly when you enter the room?
  • Have you found pornography on your child’s computer?
  • Does your child try to hide floppy disks? Your child may be saving inappropriate material on floppy disk feeling it is less likely you will discover the material on a floppy disk than if it was stored on the computer’s hard drive.
  • Does your child voice an inappropriate level of sexual knowledge? While some knowledge is commonly passed between adolescents, certain information, if known by your child, can only have been acquired from adults.
  • Does your child receive phone calls from people you don’t know, or is your child making calls, perhaps long distance, to numbers you don’t recognize?
  • Does your child receive mail, gifts, or packages from someone you don’t know?
  • Is your child using an on-line account belonging to someone else?
  • Does your child experience major sleeping difficulties?

Q: What should I do if I suspect that my child is communicating with a dangerous individual on-line?

  • Consider talking openly with your child about your suspicions. Tell your child about the dangers of on-line predators.
  • Use Caller ID service to determine who is telephoning your child.
  • Telephone companies also offer an additional service feature that allows you to block certain incoming calls.

Q: My child has met someone on the Internet who wants to set up a meeting in real life. Should I let my child go?

A: The simplest and safest answer is to say, "Never meet anyone in real life who you meet online." There are others who say if you take a number of precautions (such as meeting the person in a large public place like a mall, with a parent or several friends along), you can allow your child to safely meet someone he or she has met on the Internet. Again, you must use your best judgment, employing your personal philosophy of child-raising.

V. DEALING WITH CHILDREN’S COMPUTER USE OUTSIDE THE HOME

Q: What about protecting my child from what they can see over the Internet on computers outside our home?

A: There are steps, even here, that you can take. Know your school’s and library’s policies on Internet access. If those policies are not acceptable to you, take a role in using your democratic right to bring about changes in those policies. Attend PTA, school board, and local government meetings and let your opinions be heard. Organize other parents who feel the way you do and bring appropriate political pressures to change the policies. But remember, your child can also access the Internet at the computers in their friends’ homes. Just as you need to know the TV-watching habits of your child’s friends, you should try to learn how the friends’ parents permit Internet access in their homes.

Q: So then there’s no hope of fully protecting my child?

A: Not exactly. But remember, there is no way to fully govern your child’s TV-watching habits or reading habits either. Nor is there any way to absolutely be sure how safe your child is when he or she begins driving or is being driven by friends. It is part of the growing process that slowly moves children and adolescents into adult society that they become exposed to and learn about the dangers of society as well as its benefits. That is why your child needs your supervision and guidance in using the Internet, as in all other daily activities. By instilling in your child (at a young enough age) your views on what is appropriate and inappropriate conduct, over the Internet as well as in the real world, you are helping not only to protect your child, but to help him or her develop into a wholesome and virtuous citizen. By taking the time to read this brochure, you have taken an important first step toward making the Internet the positive resource it should be for you and your family.

For further information, or to report suspicions of inappropriate or criminal activity on the Internet, call the Criminal Frauds Bureau of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office at 516-571-3343.