Sometimes a dangerous place is easy to spot, such as a dark alley or unlighted parking garage. But sometimes it isn’t.
The Internet can be full of danger, though most pre-teens and teenagers visit it daily. Rob Nickel devotes his life to trying to make it safer.
Before becoming a cyber safety expert, Nickel spent 14 years on the police force in Ontario, Canada, seven of them with pedophiles who were searching for children online. “I’d go online and pose as a predator or a pedophile myself, and for those seven years the bad guys taught me what they look for and what they do to try to lure and harm children over the Internet.”
Using this knowledge, Nickel is raising awareness about Internet dangers through numerous speaking engagements throughout North America and with his Web site, www.cyber-safety.com.
Though many people fear identity theft, Nickel says predators are the biggest threat to young people. “You can always get your money back. If somebody does a scam and gets you for money, that’s fine, but once a child’s harmed in any way, whether it’s exploited on the Internet, abused, you can’t get anything worse than that,” he said.
Teens often are unaware of these predators or don’t believe they will fall victim. “I want kids to understand these individuals are out there. They’re very easy to find. I did a Dr. Phil show in 2006 and went online in Las Vegas and found a guy in five minutes,” Nickel said.
The first step in protecting yourself is to limit the information you post. “The more information that you put out there on the Internet is more ammunition for the bad guys, or those who want to do some harm,” Nickel said.
In particular, Nickel warns about Facebook or blog comments that allude to current activities, such as trips and vacations. Posts such as “can’t wait for the family vacation this weekend” lets everyone know your house will be empty on the weekend. Statements such as “so bored on this bus ride to Anderson” lets readers know where you’re going and how you will get there.
While these comments might seem harmless, they might not be. “One of the things the bad guys will do is search a lot of profile pages, a lot of MySpace and Facebook pages, and gather information about young people to build a bond with them or even to find out where they’re going in real life,” Nickel said.
Most social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, have security settings, and users should make full use of them, Nickel said. Recently, Facebook made most of its default settings “friends only,” rather than “friends of friends” or “everyone.”
In addition, Nickel cautions vigilance when dealing with all strangers. “When you’re chatting with somebody online, always think you don’t know who that person is. Somebody saying they’re a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old boy or girl could really be an adult man or woman pretending. There’s no way to really tell who they are on the other side,” he said.
And think twice about sending revealing pictures of yourself to anyone, Nickel says. Many boys and girls send personal photos of themselves to their boyfriend or girlfriend. However, Nickel cautions that after a break-up, these photos might be in the hands of an angry ex and can be exploited or misused all over the Internet.
Contributing to this story were assistant editors Julie Kippenbrock, 17, Caroline Payne, 14, and Kaitlin Payne, 17, and reporter Jade Poynter, 12.
Copyright 2010 Y-Press