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Bedford parents warned about Internet predators

BEDFORD - Giving out too much personal information is dangerous, and it could even be deadly. That was the message delivered last night at a student safety forum attended mostly by parents at McKelvie Intermediate School.

The event, sponsored by the McKelvie Parent-Teacher Group, featured guest speakers from the police and fire departments and the Child Advocacy Center of Hillsborough County who discussed a broad range of safety-related tropics.

"You want to limit what information you release as much as possible," said Erin McIntyre, a former prosecutor in Massachusetts who is now director of the Child Advocacy Center of Hillsborough County. "There are people out there who are preying on children."

Personal information is released most frequently over the Internet, but McIntyre said there are other ways people divulge facts about themselves and their families that seem innocent but provide details predators can use to their advantage. For example, she cited the popular stick figures that appear on the back windows of cars depicting a family's makeup. By looking at the depiction, a predator could take note of the fact that he's driving behind a single mother who cares for two children and a dog.

"It's really hard to be a parent because you've got to be game-on all the time to keep kids safe," said McIntyre. "I don't want to offend or scare anyone tonight, but I live in a paranoid world."

According to the Granite State Children's Alliance, 240 children are sexually abused in the United States every day - or one every six minutes. And nearly five children die every day in this country as a result of abuse or neglect.

And while predatory behavior from strangers is a real threat, the speakers who addressed the crowd of about 50 said the most common scenario involves a predator who is close to the victim or the victim's family.

"The person who harms your child is most likely a person you know pretty well," said McIntyre. "It's not always the creepy guy who gives you a bad feeling that's targeting your kid."

It's more likely that a child's abuser is going to be a family member or friend, a coach, a Scout leader or pastor or some other authority figure.

"It's the people who have exposure to your children - they're the ones you have to watch out for," said McIntyre. "Most of the time it's going to be somebody that's really embedded in that child's life."

Bedford Police Detective Matthew Fleming, a member of the Portsmouth-based Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, called the Internet a "target rich" environment for predators, adding that 45 million children log on to the Internet each day. And most teenagers, said Fleming, can navigate the Internet better than their parents.

"When you think your kids have gone to bed, well, they haven't gone to bed," said Fleming. "Some students set online dates after hours when everybody in this room is asleep."

His advice to parents is to collect all electronic devices before their children go to bed and put them someplace where the children can't get to them.

Fleming said the statistics about predatory behavior on the Internet are disturbing. One in 33 children receive aggressive sexual solicitations over the Internet, he said, adding that "online predators are very good at what they do."

Other safety tips came from the fire department's fire inspector, Scott Hunter, who urged parents to use the latest technology in working to prevent house fires or carbon- monoxide poisonings.

According to Hunter, a study determined that most children, regardless of their age, will sleep through the sound of a smoke alarm going off. But today's technology allows a parent's voice to be programmed into smoke alarms, and studies have shown that to be a more effective method of alerting children to a fire danger, Hunter said.

He also said radio frequency technology allows a smoke detector in the basement or the first floor to communicate with smoke alarms on the second floor.

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