Authorities urge parents to be informed, involved

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By John Barnhart

 A recent incident in which a 21-year-old man traveled to Bedford county to allegedly run off with a 13-year-old girl illustrates the dark side of the Internet, local authorities state.

    According to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, the two met playing an X-Box Live game. According to Sgt. Terry Wright of Blue Ridge Thunder, a unit which investigates Internet crimes against children, this and similar game systems allow people to play against a real human competitor instead of against the machine. In each case, a competitor must create a profile. The amount of information they give on these profiles varies from system to system, but it includes a valid e-mail address and a screen name.

    Like many areas on the Internet, you can misrepresent yourself. Wright notes that a man can say he’s a girl and players can claim to be any age.

    “You have no idea who you are playing with,” Wright commented.

    Once you have the system, the basic games are free. However, there are also features that players can purchase. Wright said that the Bedford County girl was using the free side.

    Wright said that some games allow interaction between players and Lost Planet, the game that the Rhode Island man and the local girl were allegedly playing, allowed participants to interact and pass information to each other. Wright said that the two chatted during the game and eventually shifted their communication from X-Box to other Internet venues.

    “They communicated quite extensively,” he said of the allegations.

    Wright said Blue Ridge Thunder investigators were called in shortly after deputies learned that there had been Internet activity. They went to the girl’s house, talked to her family and did a forensic preview of her computer.

    They were also in contact with MSM, which handles the X-Box games. Wright said that the game providers cooperate well with Blue Ridge Thunder.

    “There is always a 24-hour contact person,” Wright said. “They work very well with us for cases like that.”

    Before the girl and 21-year-old man finally turned up at a house seeking to use the phone, investigators already knew about the suspect,  Andrew F. Holloway of Rhode Island, and were looking for him.

    Knowing what to look for helps.

    “We have at our disposal a lot of really good resources,” said Wright.

    Along with investigators that patrol the Internet looking for predators or people sharing files of child porn, they have a full time forensic examiner. This investigator can do a detailed examination of a computer hard drive and can recover deleted files.

    “We were very fortunate,” Wright said. “We are glad it worked out the way it did.”

    This girl was returned to her family alive and uninjured. Wright cited one Virginia case in which a young teen, now a young woman, was held and severely physically abused for an extended period of time before authorities were able to locate and free her.

    Wright said parents need to be alert, noting that many don’t realize that their children can interact with others while playing these games. When purchasing a game, talk to personnel in a game shop and read the game’s instructions to learn of its capabilities, authorities. Find out what parental controls can be set up and how easy the system is for parents to navigate.

    He notes that parental controls aren’t foolproof and parents need to talk with their children about the dangers. He noted that adult predators using these games to hunt victims sometimes use the game resources they can buy as a tool. They can offer to give a minor some purchasable resources in return for information or a photo.

    Wright said that players should also be careful not to use a screen name that they’ve used for other games, or anything that can link them to a profile they have on a social networking site like Facebook. A predator can use this information to find his victims online friends, befriend them, and gather bits of information from them. Internet predators can learn a lot about their prey by putting together bits gathered from multiple sources.

    “The kids, they are not suspicious,” Wright said. “They are so trusting.”

    “I tell parents to check on their children,” he said.

    This means, don’t let a child take the game to his room and play with the door closed.

    Wright said it’s also important for parents to be open enough that their children can come to them and tell talk to them. He noted that sometimes a predator will use information he’s gathered on his prey to threaten the child. He knows who the child’s friends are and could, perhaps, use the threat of telling the child’s friends about something to strong-arm his victim into meeting him.

    Wright notes that issues that aren’t a big deal to adults could appear dreadful to a child or young teen. Even getting tagged with an embarrassing label can appear devastating. Parents need to make sure that their child can come to them if something that somebody said to the child on the Internet frightened or upset them. Wright noted that it’s especially difficult for boys to tell their parents.

    Wright notes that the innocence that makes children trusting is at stake. It’s important to make sure they don’t lose that prematurely.

    “It’s like toothpaste in a tube,” he said. “Once you squeeze it out , you can’t put it back.”