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Internet crime a troubling trend

Parents are the first line of defense in protecting children from becoming victims of Internet crime, according to Clanton Police Detective Neil Fetner.

Fetner has a background of investigating Internet crimes such as piracy, phishing schemes and child pornography. Even though he has worked at Clanton PD for only about six months, his background tells him that the Internet is the future of crime — and it is just as present in Chilton County as anywhere.

“I know for a fact that cyber crime is happening everywhere. You can get a lot more information from the Internet than by holding up someone with a gun,” Fetner said.

While not all Internet crimes involve children, a disturbing number of them do. One area of potential danger is social networking sites such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. Although the sites make communication much easier, they can also make the behavior of criminals much more destructive.

“Those type of sites make it very easy for children to open a gateway into their lives and into their homes,” Fetner said.

Fetner said children’s activities on the Internet are usually innocent. It’s the people on the other end he’s worried about. And when kids give away too much information — an address, phone number or photograph of themselves — that information can fall into the wrong hands.

A good way to avoid this is by setting up a computer in a common area of the home rather than in a child’s room.

“It’s very, very good that parents monitor their children on the Internet,” Fetner said. “I would recommend first and foremost, don’t let your kids have a computer in their room. I’m not insinuating that parents should spy on their children, but it is a parent’s responsibility to know who their children are associating with on the Internet.”

One especially troubling trend is that of “sexting,” or sending inappropriate pictures, usually via cell phones. But even if a photo or text message isn’t inappropriate, the fact that it must pass over a network opens up the door for danger.

“There could be the potential for that message to be received in error by someone else,” Fetner said, explaining that a photo or message could then be uploaded onto the Internet by anyone.

He also explained the importance of making children aware that once something goes up on the Internet, it can never be fully retrieved.

Fetner advises anyone who finds illicit material on someone’s computer or whose child has been approached by a suspicious person to contact the Clanton Police Department by e-mail at cpd@clantonpd.com.

“We want to use the Internet for good,” he said.

Computers are also used solely for the purpose of entering Internet chat rooms and targeting potential predators.

Indeed, technology itself can be used to prevent crime. But it also makes cases more difficult.

James Houts, Chief Assistant District Attorney, said the DA office must rely on IP addresses and computer files that must be examined by highly specialized people, who also must explain to juries how such information helps identify and locate an offender.

“It adds a complexity to these cases that you may not get in other types of crimes,” Houts said.

Nobody wants a child to have to take the stand, but sometimes even this is necessary. But it happens a lot less often thanks to the efforts of child advocacy centers like Child Protect, who videotape interviews with children to be used as evidence.

“Child advocacy centers are a Godsend,” Houts said.