Exposing the Dangers of Internet Chat Rooms

(Featured March 7, 2005)

By Robert Hugh Farley, M.S.
Consultant to the VIRTUS Programs


 

Teenagers who use the various online services often feel that they don’t need the same controls or restrictions as younger children. Unfortunately, teens are more likely to get in trouble while online than are younger children. Online chat rooms afford teenagers the opportunity to easily reach out beyond their parents, their circle of friends, or even their own general peer group. Teens are frequently unaware that chat rooms are often the most dangerous online location a person can visit.

Overview

A chat room provides a teenager an opportunity to engage in a “live” conversation with friends from school or church, or with other teenagers from around the world. A chat room is described as being similar to an old style telephone party line except that the teens are typing—or, if the computer’s microphone is enabled, they may be talking with each other in real time (with no delay).

Chat rooms feature open conversations, where every participant within the room can see what everyone else says. The chat room name varies and may be based on the type of online service or the location on the Internet. The chat room’s specific name may be based on a topic, a location, a group, a specific school, or a special interest. Some service providers such as America on Line (AOL) provide their own chat rooms that, in many cases, are monitored for safety. Internet-based chat rooms for the most part, however, have no safety monitoring.

When visiting a chat room, it is not uncommon for a teen to become “friends” with one or more of the room’s participants. Some of these online relationships are safe and can even be fun. Unfortunately, some relationships can turn out to be extremely dangerous. In these relationships a trusting teen may not realize that a “friend” is actuality lying about a multitude of things.

Dangers

Law enforcement has found that child molesters use chat rooms to gain easy and safe access to teens. For instance a 13-year-old girl can innocently join a chat room with the name “13 Single and Looking.” The girl would think that because the name of the chat room describes her own situation she would be able to meet other unattached teens in her own age group. Unfortunately, child molesters will gravitate to a chat room with this type of name looking for the opportunity to meet, converse with, and then sexually exploit children. In many situations a child molester will assume the identity of a young man. During a chat or during the course of several chats he will appear to act very concerned and understanding, and in some cases will offer the girl compassionate advice. Because of the caring and the seductive talent of child molesters, teenagers should be warned that when they are in a chat room, they should never provide anyone with private information, personal information, and especially their specific physical location.

During a chat a significant danger occurs when the molester encourages a teen to meet him or her in person so they can “talk about” his or her concerns “in person.” Any teenager who visits chat rooms should be warned to never physically meet with anyone they have talked with online unless he or she first discusses the meeting with his or her parents or with some other responsible adult.

In the hundreds of arrests of online sexual predators that our unit conducted in Chicago, we found that in almost every case the offender had previously met and sexually abused one or more teenagers in locations across the United States and in Europe. In most of the cases of sexual abuse that we identified, none of the children had reported the sexual abuse to their parents or to law enforcement.

Some services or even some websites offer “private chat” areas. Teens may utilize these private areas to talk with friends away from the prying eyes of others. Some of these chats may be truly private, while others may be listed with the names of the chat rooms on a directory. If the chat room name is listed on a directory, nothing will stop a stranger from entering the chat room.

During some chats, a “friend” may offer to upload a photo. This can be dangerous because the upload may contain a virus, a Trojan horse, or Spyware. This software can then be used by a molester to view the teen’s computer—keystroke by keystroke—or with some Trojan horses to actually take control of the teen’s computer. In other cases a molester may upload pornography or child pornography as a way of soliciting a reaction from the teen. A simple safety rule is to never accept an upload from anybody in a chat room.

Screen name

The screen name is the name or the identifier by which thousands of people will identify the user in the chat room. A screen name is also known as a username, nickname, or screen ID. The screen name for an online service is frequently associated with a connection password. Most online providers allow you to use multiple screen names although the passwords are registered with the service. The Internet Relay Chat (IRC), that I discussed in the January 31, 2005, VIRTUS Online article, allows the user to change his or her password every time that that person enters a chat room or multiple times during a single “chat.” The names are not registered in the IRC.

Frequently a teen will attempt to pick something unique as a screen name so that it can be easily recognized by other teens such as “bobbi13” or “hoodsy14.” This can be dangerous as a molester can easily identify this user as being a teen. A screen name should never have a child’s real name, age, or anything else that might identify the online user as a teen.

Profile

A profile is the location where an online user can “publicly” list his or her personal information and special interests. Because this information is posted and is open to the public, anyone can view it. Unfortunately, a child molester can easily do a word search of the profile information to locate children or teens living in his or her own city or even in his or her own neighborhood. Once a local teen has been located, the molester can easily determine when the teen is online. He can then engage the teen in a chat conversation, while using the information from the teen’s profile as a catalyst in the conversation.

For safety purposes, a child’s profile should never include:

  • A photograph of the teen.
  • The first name, the last name, or any other name the teen may use.
  • The teen’s home address, city, or state.
  • Home or mobile telephone numbers.
  • Social Security Number.
  • The name of the teen’s school.
  • The name of the school’s sports team or the school colors.
  • The names of any friends.

In addition to never providing personal information in a profile, teens should be warned that for their own personal safety they should never share any of this information with the participants of any chat room or while using an Instant Messaging system.

Instant Messaging (IM)

Known by several other names, Instant Messaging is used by many teens as an alternative to waiting for a response to an email message. With this software, it allows teens to send and receive private—and in some situations unsolicited—messages from other online users. AOL users utilize Instant Messaging as a form of private one-on-one communication. Other online services may use software called Instant Messenger, which makes it possible to exchange messages with one person or with several people at once.

Protection

When chatting online teenagers may become uncomfortable as the result of being harassed, bullied, or subjected to obscene language. They can also be stalked or solicited for sex. Some online services such as America on Line (AOL) offer safety controls connected with their chat rooms. Most of these controls are of the “on or off” type. This means that a parent is prompted with a question and then asked to check yes or no. An example of this type of questions is: “Do you want your child to receive email?” Or, “Do you want your child to access the Internet?” The problem with these controls is that some children will find a way to circumvent the parental controls. Because many of the controls are easy to manage, a determined, creative, and “techie” teen will find a way to circumvent them.

Unlike some of the online services that provide parental controls, the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has absolutely no built-in parental controls or safety mechanisms.

Conclusion

Chat rooms can be a source of amusement, but chat rooms can also be very risky. Prior to a teen or a child joining in the fun of online chatting, a frank discussion should occur where the dangers of online chatting are discussed and specific rules are established to help protect the child from online predators.

 


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Internet has become the new schoolyard for child molesters seeking girls or boys to victimize. For 2005, the VIRTUS® programs present an intensive training seminar that illustrates the growing problem of sexual predators who target children via the Internet. The seminar identifies and then discusses the methodologies and seduction techniques employed by the child molester in the various chat rooms and on the World Wide Web. Additionally, the seminar examines the topics of child erotica, child pornography, and their use by the child molester. Lastly, the seminar explores safety techniques and software that can be used to protect children.

Robert Hugh Farley, M.S., a 30-year veteran of the Cook County Sheriff’s Police Department in Chicago, Illinois, presents this eye-opening seminar. As a highly decorated detective and deputy United States Marshal, Detective Farley has had over 28 years experience conducting and supervising all aspects of child abuse investigations—from sexual abuse to child homicide.

For more information on this seminar, click here to download and print a one-page description.

 


EDITOR’S NOTE #2: Online chat rooms, Instant Messaging systems, and even cell phones equipped to send text messages are an environment rich in abbreviations, acronyms, and other “shorthand” words that help increase the speed of communication. We have created a searchable list to help parents become aware of some of the common “lingo” that is used in chatrooms and other “text messaging” environments.

Because of the graphic and explicit nature of some of these terms, this feature is only accessible to those who have the ability to “log in” to the subscriber area of this website. You may find some of these terms to be vulgar, degrading, or otherwise offensive. However, we believe it is our responsibility through this “safe environment” program to provide parents and educators with this level of understanding of the dangers that face our children.

If you have a VIRTUS Online User ID and Password, you may log in with your User ID and Password, and then click the “My Toolbox” tab. Once you’ve opened the “My Toolbox” tab, look at the green bar located on the left-hand side of your screen, and about halfway down the menu, you’ll see a link titled “Acronyms and Other Internet Shorthand.” Click that link to access the searchable list of terms.



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