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Youngsters Falling Prey to Seducers in Computer Web : Crime: Once candy was the lure. Now strangers are using cyberspace e-mail to attract minors into harm’s way.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Montgomery got a computer for his 15-year-old son last year. He showed Daniel how to play computer games and tap into the huge electronic nether world of chat rooms and e-mail.

Like many teen-agers, Daniel took to it happily, spending hours at a time clicking away at the keyboard in his room. Then one day in May, Daniel came home early from school, picked up a bus ticket from the mailbox and slipped away--apparently responding to an invitation from a man, known as Damien, he had met by e-mail.

Frantically searching for their son at the vacant keyboard of his computer, the Montgomerys typed urgent messages into the electronic void, begging Daniel at his e-mail address to come home. They promised him a new car and help in finding a part-time job to earn some extra money.

They looked up Damien Starr in America Online’s subscriber directory and found a man who listed his hobby as engaging in fellatio and his motto: “The one who dies with the most boys . . . toys wins.”

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Ruth Montgomery typed repeated entreaties into the computer, begging Damien to be careful with her son. “Daniel is a virgin,” she said.

“Oh, no, he’s not,” Damien replied.

In an interview last week, Bill Montgomery recounted the message quietly, without a trace of emotion: “He made an illustration of some acts that he had done with Daniel.” Then Montgomery broke off, and his wife began sobbing quietly.

Daniel was found alone at a San Francisco airport terminal last week. He told his parents that Damien was simply an older teen-ager, and that he had been “on vacation” and had not been harmed in any way. Bill Montgomery says he doesn’t know what to believe.

Such are the frightening new frontiers of cyberspace, a place where the child thought safely tucked away in his or her own room may be in greater danger than anyone could imagine.

Parents in the Dark

In Kentucky, a woman is searching for her 13-year-old daughter who disappeared recently, apparently lured away after an e-mail correspondence with someone identified only as George in California.

“We can run around our room naked all day and all night,” George had suggested in the computer message printouts left behind by the girl, Tara Noble.

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Tara’s mother, Lisa Noble, believes that her daughter is now somewhere in Los Angeles. “She’s been in contact with some of her e-mail friends,” she said. “Since all of this, I found out there’s a parental control button I could have used. But a lot of parents out there don’t know how to use computers. They just buy them for their children. Which is exactly what I did for Tara. I had no earthly idea of what was going on.”

Law enforcement officials, who are only beginning to develop the tools to patrol the trackless web of electronic communications, say their initial concerns about children’s access to adult materials and the distribution of child pornography on the Internet have now moved a step beyond--to the very real possibility that children could be lured into illicit sex, prostitution or worse by contacts gleaned from their home computers.

“The crux of the problem is for an awful lot of parents, you can almost hear the sigh of relief: ‘My kid is in his or her room; they’re working on the computer.’ To most parents, who don’t have a very good understanding about the computers or on-line services, they think that’s great because the kid is at home and safe and doing something positive and good,” said Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

“The message we’re trying to send is: It is great, but there are risks everywhere, including in cyberspace,” Allen said.

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Instances of children being talked into personal encounters after computer on-line contacts had been rare until very recently, when at least five such cases were documented around the nation.

In addition to the two recent cases, child welfare groups point to a case last year in which a Santa Clara County computer engineer pleaded no contest to molesting a 14-year-old boy after arranging a secret meeting with him through electronic mail. A Massachusetts man was charged in September with statutory rape of two young boys he met through his computer bulletin board, “The County Morgue.”

On May 26, 51-year-old Alan Paul Barlow, a Seattle postal worker, was sentenced to six years in prison after he pleaded guilty to charges of having sex with a girl as young as 10 and making graphic, sexually oriented e-mail contacts with adolescent and teen-age girls in several states.

In several cases, Seattle prosecutors allege, Barlow talked the girls into sending him naked photos of themselves and sent them nude photos of himself. Barlow was arrested last year in Mamaronack, N.Y., after he arranged a personal meeting with a 14-year-old girl with whom he had corresponded by e-mail, at first posing as a 13-year-old boy. The girl’s mother happened to see her daughter talking to Barlow at a suburban shopping mall and contacted police.

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The case has prompted a New York state senator to propose legislation making it a felony to conduct sexual communications with minors via computer. Existing federal law makes it illegal to lure a minor into sexual activity through computer chat lines, and Congress has been debating legislation to toughen penalties for allowing minors telecommunications access to indecent materials. But legal analysts say the broad reach of free-speech protection that applies to on-line communications makes it difficult to police these contacts.

“You’re dealing with an information superhighway, where people can remain so anonymous that trying to track it is virtually impossible,” said Dyanne Greer, recently of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse.

“Of course, there’s been a lot of debate as to how do you apply existing law to a new arena. . . . In terms of privacy issues, First Amendment rights, all of those issues have yet to be addressed. There’s virtually no way of monitoring what goes on, and it really comes back to parents having to monitor their kids when they’re on-line because there’s no way of tracking it,” Greer said.

Even when parents or law enforcement officials are able to trace an on-line contact, she said, the anonymity and brevity of e-mail communications provide safe cover. “A lot of these guys are very cagey. They’re not going to put anything in there that’s going to make them susceptible to any charges, but they’re going to make things look so attractive that the kid’s going to want to run away on his own, without any soliciting.”

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‘It’s Too Late’

Daniel Montgomery would spend hours on the computer, and his father, who had taught him how to sign on to America Online, monitored the amount of time he used on the subscription service. Daniel would always come in and say when he was about to sign on, and the elder Montgomery said he thought nothing more about it.

On May 18, Daniel left school early. His friends said he looked distracted on the school bus ride home and that he made a beeline for the mailbox when he arrived. He removed what turned out to be a bus ticket, went inside and repacked his book bag, and disappeared.

In the weeks that followed, his parents had both phone calls and e-mail messages from Damien, whom Daniel described later as another teen-age runaway living with some older men in San Francisco. They also began to get e-mail messages from Daniel, asking for his Social Security number so he could get a job, telling them how much he enjoyed the new place where he was living--where he said he had a television, a computer and easy transportation around the city by bus. He went to the beach a lot, he said.

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“We have one of the best transit systems in the U.S. here. Literally no one drives a car. You can get anywhere you want for cheap. No license, no gas, no insurance,” Daniel enthused as his anguished parents looked for clues. A good transit system? A beach? Florida? California?

“I LOVE YOU, Daniel,” his mother wrote back. “Please give me the joy of having you with us again. We can be happy together. . . . I miss you so. I miss your hugs every morning and before bed. I accept you regardless of how you are or what you have done. The whole church, our family and I are praying for you to come back. We have made some changes around here. We are never going to skip family day again unless it’s an emergency. . . .”

An e-mail message flicked back from Daniel a day or so later: “It’s too late. I’m already here. I don’t want another job, another chance, another anything. Please don’t cry over me, I still love you, but you will have to treat me like an adult. I’m making adult decisions now. To live with my parents would ruin it all . . . so for the last time, please stop tempting me to come back home. . . .”

America Online initially refused to give the Montgomerys detailed information about the subscriber identified as Damien. Later, the company turned over to police all records on both Damien and George in the Tara Noble case.

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Freedoms, Controls

America Online spokeswoman Pam McGraw said the company offers a service in which parents can block out children’s access to the kind of “chat rooms” where Daniel initially made contact with Damien Starr via a gay and lesbian interactive discussion group.

Private e-mail cannot be controlled, nor can America Online be responsible for the content of private messages transmitted over its electronic web, McGraw said. She said main America Online accounts are restricted to those 18 and older as an additional control feature.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has published a guide for parents in conjunction with the nation’s three major on-line providers. The guide offers computer safety tips and emphasizes parental responsibility in monitoring their children’s computer use.

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“Adult offenders, whether pedophiles or whatever the shape and configuration, basically target and prey upon vulnerable kids. That happens in schools and shopping malls and public places, and it also happens in cyberspace.” Allen said.

“The key thing for parents is, it’s no different from any other area. Parents need to know what their kids are doing, and they need to communicate with their kids,” he said.

Law enforcement officials say children should be cautioned never to give out personal information on-line--such as their address, telephone number or school--and they should tell their parents if they receive any communication that makes them uncomfortable. Children should also be instructed never to give out their photograph or agree to a personal meeting with an e-mail friend without bringing a parent along.

Civil rights organizations have been cautious when it comes to new laws to screen the content of on-line communications. Most say existing laws do an adequate job of protecting children from the potential hazards of computer contact.

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“It has long been the case that minors have run away; they sometimes run away to the company of adults. What happens is that when this is done through a new communications medium, many people have the reaction that this signals the need for some kind of new legislation,” said Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil rights group in Washington.

“But if you look at the laws that are in place now, you find that it is already against the law for adults to have sex with children, it is against the law for adults to take children away from their parents, it is against the law for adults to engage in any kind of seductive or solicitative activity toward children,” he said.

“The fact is for a large part of the time, children are out from under the sight of their parents. What do you do instead of constantly accompanying your child everywhere? You tell your child: ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ and you hope that message takes.”

Bill Montgomery thought he had given that message to his son. He thought he was carefully monitoring the timing of his on-line sessions. He thought he was giving his son the kind of parental watchfulness he needed. Since he came home, Daniel has been evasive, and now all his father feels is confusion and fear.

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“I don’t think we’ve gotten to the bottom of this yet,” he said Thursday after Daniel’s return. “I’m not sure we know the truth yet. I talked to Mr. Noble on the phone in Kentucky this morning. He hasn’t found his daughter yet. He and I both believe we’ve got a serious problem on our hands.”


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