Law enforcement officials say they are struggling to stay ahead of computer invasions, data theft, fraud, and child pornography on the Internet. Authorities say the Internet is a tool that can make life easier, but they warn of dangers online, especially for children.
Of all the forms of online crime, child predators on the Internet are the most worrisome, says Gina Osborn, assistant special agent in charge of cyber programs in the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"It's grown as a result of the Internet," said Gina Osborn. "It used to be that you would have a child predator who may be living on the corner. That was one thing. But now on the Internet, there are chat rooms designed for individuals who want to exploit children and they can talk to each other. And it seems that instead of having just one person doing it on their own, we're finding more and more organizations that are coming together to exploit children."
She says those who share images of child sexual abuse are shielding their activities with encryption tools.
She says some predators prowl online social sites in an effort to lure children to meet with them. The FBI cites examples from the thousands of complaints it has received in recent years. A 33-year-old man from the southern state of Alabama met a 14-year-old girl from the northeastern state of New Jersey online. He enticed her to Florida, where he abused her. Another man abused an 11-year-old girl in her home in Connecticut while her parents slept. The perpetrator was a man she had met on the Internet.
In Los Angeles, the FBI works with other law enforcement agencies in a task force to combat the problem. The Los Angeles city attorney is one member of the task force, and Tracy Webb, who directs child abuse policy for the city attorney's office, says the problem is international, wherever computers are linked to the Internet.
"It's getting bigger instead of smaller, and so one of the things the task force wants to do is not only arrest these people and prosecute them, but also do awareness and prevention programs so that we can educate the public about prevention efforts, and we can also send the message that the Internet predators are out there," said Tracy Webb.
The task force worked with students and faculty members at California State University, Northridge, to create a public service announcement alerting parents to dangers lurking online. The video promotion shows a family at dinner, each immersed in his or her own activities - a boy and his sister are lost in the digital world with a hand-held communicator and a music player. In the background a predator lurks at his computer.
PREDATOR: "If you don't talk to your kids, I will."
Los Angeles actor William Salyers and his son, Ian, both appear in the ad. He says the family is well aware of potential dangers online.
"Yes, actually," said William Salyers. "Ian's fortunate in that his parents are both pretty tech savvy and so that's something we've been aware of at our household and we've been watching out for, and we were really happy to be involved in an opportunity to spread the word."
Ian says he was happy to get out the message to other kids.
"It was exciting, and I was glad that I was able to help with something that's been an issue for a while," said Ian Salyers.
Internet experts say other online problems include cyber-bullying, when children, and sometimes adults, use the Internet to intimidate or embarrass others. The problem was highlighted 2006, when a suburban American mother was accused of driving a 13-year-old girl to suicide by tormenting her online, using a false identity.
Law enforcement officials also worry about the practice known as "sexting", a term derived from the practice of instant-messaging or "texting". Teenagers sometimes send explicit pictures of themselves or other teens. Gina Osborn says the results are tragic.
"It's a peer pressure type of situation, and unfortunately these girls, more often than not, will send pictures of themselves to their boyfriends, when the boyfriends are their boyfriends, and when they break up, they'll be distributed throughout the school," she said. "And there have been cases where these girls have committed suicide as a result of the humiliation. So it's definitely a problem, and it's becoming an increasing problem, I'm afraid."
Social psychologist Karen North, who directs the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, says one of the biggest dangers online occurs between teenagers who engage in sexually explicit conversation.
"Then they meet each other and they don't know how to say no, or one says no and the other doesn't agree to the no," said Karen North.
She says predators, once a threat in the neighborhood, are also a threat online, although she encourages parents to keep the threat in perspective.
"The percentage of them is very small," she said. "Your kids are, for the most part, safe. But just like teaching your kid how to cross the street safely, just like teaching your kid not to talk to strangers at the park or at the mall, or not to go up to the truck or the car that pulls up and starts talking to them, you have to teach them the same kind of rules and safety online."
Internet experts say communications devices, from computers to iPhones, need to be monitored when in the hands of children. They say the most important rule is to keep a child's computer in view of other family members whenever possible, and make sure children know the rules on online conduct. They say children should not give their names and addresses to strangers, and never engage in provocative talk online.