Magazine article Newsweek

Don't 'Chat' to Strangers

Magazine article Newsweek

Don't 'Chat' to Strangers

Article excerpt

Danger Online: Two teens vanish into cyberspace. Were they lured away by computer pals?

DANIEL MONTGOMERY WAS so addicted to America Online's "chat rooms"--a nationwide system of cyberspace pen pals--that his parents limited him to four online hours a week. But the Montgomery's didn't know how dangerous the obsession was until the 15-year-old vanished from home in Maple Valley, Wash., on May 18. A school friend said Daniel skipped sixth period and ran straight to the family mailbox. He found a bus ticket and a check - then left town. But why? Where did he go? Who sent the ticket? His parents were baffled, until the phone rang the next day. The caller identified himself as "Damien Starr" and later said he had arranged Daniel's escape--even though they'd never met. Damien was one of Daniel's online buddies.

Kids have been running away from home since before Huck Finn, but computer-assisted disappearances have thrown parents into the twilight zone. A child may know not to talk to strangers at the mall, but in the faceless, anonymous world of online, talking to strangers is the whole idea. And sometimes those strangers can be predators. In the last year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has recorded about a dozen cases of cyberspace pedophiles courting minors. While online services provide easy mechanisms to block chat-room access, many parents don't know the safeguards exist. But would-be pedophiles know what parents don't. "These guys are very manipulative. They sense the vulnerability and they play upon it," says NCMEC president Ernie Allen.

Daniel's parents believed their son had been lured by just such a phony friend. Damien continued to call the Montgomerys for a few days, finally revealing that Daniel was with him in San Francisco. They had reportedly met in a chat room for gays and lesbians. …

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