Local law enforcement officials say there is a big problem with internet predators preying on children and teenagers. They've set up a special task force to locate and arrest as many of these computer predators as possible, but they say they need help from parents.
Fifty million children have access to the Internet. One in five says they've already been sexual solicited online.
Everyone knows there are shady characters hanging out on the virtual playground of cyberspace, but many people have been surprised by how many of those characters are playing here locally.
The Bay County Sheriff's Office Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has arrested four local men in the last month. Each thought they were soliciting a 14-year-old girl for sex over the net. The 14-year-old girl was really an undercover cop.
Parents like Beverly Dienline are taking the arrests very seriously. She’s disconnected her home Internet service. Now when her 14-year-old daughter Chelsea wants to surf the Web, Beverly takes her to the public library.
"They can watch her here at the library. More people here if something were to happen. If she felt afraid she could get someone's attention for what's going on."
If you can't bear to give up your at-home connection, there are some simple things you can do to insure your child's safety against online predators.
First, put the computer in a family room, so you can monitor your child. Do not allow your child to distribute their picture or personal information to anyone. Don't be intimidated by parental controls. Most all online providers have them, learn to use them, and finally, monitor your child's behavior. Make sure they're not spending too much time on-line, and acting suspicious and secretive about their activity.
Jeremy Mathis is an investigator with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and says, "Parents need to spend some time with their kids. Don't be afraid to get your child to show you who they're talking to."
If you do become suspicious, Yahoo and AOL chat rooms allow you to get a play-by-play of your child's online conversations. Mathis says it's called message archive.
"It shows you a list of everybody your child has talks to and archives the chats they have. Once you turn it on it can't be changed or erased."
Dineline says she's grateful for local law enforcement's efforts to catch the predators.
"If they're that courageous to get online to get these children, then they need to be find avenues to get them to stop."
There are also several programs like Predator Guard and Net Nanny, that warn parents when a suspicious phrase like “no one will ever know about us” arise while your child's chatting.
Providers charge a monthly fee, but they're effective and you can monitor without your child knowing.