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Program warns about dangers of social networks

January 19, 2011
Social networking websites have become increasingly popular in the last five or six years, and some of the sites, like Facebook and MySpace, have seen tremendous growth, reaching tens of millions of people all around the world.

But, there can be a dark side to these sites, a side that can be dangerous to some users and highly profitable to others who use the sites as a way to rip off people.

A few weeks ago, Chief Deputy Shawn Scott of the Crawford County Sheriff's Department presented a program on the subject of social networking awareness at Hillview Christian Church in Marengo. The program, which covers many areas of social networking that Internet users should be aware of, will be repeated at Christian's Missionary Church near Carefree on Sunday, Jan. 30. Scott is hopeful more people will see the presentation, enabling them to make more informed decisions about the websites their children, particularly teens, could be visiting and the information they are sharing on the web, where almost nothing is private.

"I went to a school not long ago," Scott said. "And as much background as I have in the Internet and websites, I saw how many of the sites could be used as a tool to exploit people. Some of this stuff, if I didn't know about it, I was sure most of the public didn't know. So, I decided to put together a program to inform Internet users, both children and adults, about how vulnerable they really are.

"And yet, on the flip side, the Internet is a great investigative tool for law enforcement, and we can use those tools to locate the ones who are abusing the sites. We investigated Internet bullying and harassment.

"I was able to locate a missing person by using the Internet, and, just recently, I was able to find the owner of a lost dog within minutes of it being reported. I use it all the time, and other officers see it as an investigative tool, as well. The more aware we are, the more we can help people."

Scott presented the program to junior and senior high school students in Crawford County and now concentrates his efforts on helping parents, and even grandparents, understand the dangers of the Internet and the social networking sites.

"Most people would be really reluctant to give a lot of their personal information to a clerk at a store or other business," Scott said. "But many have no problem with putting all kinds of personal information on a website. And that opens it up to millions of people all over the world. Anyone with a free e-mail account can view it online and even use it to their advantage.

"Some of these have been tracked to the United Kingdom and other countries," he continued. "And it's not just an issue of them talking nasty to you or your children; it's also an issue of what they can do to your banking account. We're starting to see more and more reports of identity theft, and those who are really savvy can take a $2 PayPal withdrawal from your account and you probably won't even miss it. But if they do it to 10,000 people, it starts getting into some serious money."

Scott actually has three programs that he presents on the issue. Besides a program for teens at the schools, he also has a program he can present to parents and another to grandparents and elderly Internet users.

"For the teens, we like to let them know who is out there and show them how they can be hurt on social networking sites," he said. "We live in a sheltered area compared to those living in big cities. Many just don't know how vicious people can be. So, we try to point out the dangers.

"The presentation for parents is a different program, although there are some elements from all the programs in each presentation. Many parents aren't computer savvy like their teenage kids. The teen-agers know how to re-set their settings on a computer to keep some of their information from going out or to limit access, but many parents and grandparents don't know how to do it, and they can be victimized. So, we teach different people different things."

And, Scott said, there are new Internet sites popping up all the time, and many are already in use by millions.

"We try to keep up, to see what's going on with the other sites," he added. "And we have to learn how to use them. Some people are getting bored with Facebook and try new websites. Some are video sites which can lead to even more problems.

"But these days, you can buy a laptop computer with a built-in camera for $300, and even smart phones now have video messaging. So, that creates another avenue we'll have to keep an eye on."

The presentation at Christian's Missionary Church will begin at 6:30 p.m. The church is located south of Carefree along S.R. 66.

Any group or church that would like to host a presentation can call the sheriff's office in English at 338-2802 and ask for Scott.

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