COLUMBIA (AP) — To Attorney General Alan Wilson, keeping South Carolina’s children safe online isn’t just about keeping the bad guys away from kids – it’s also about educating the young people themselves.
This week, Wilson is stressing the importance of keeping children safe online by talking up the accomplishments of the Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce. Now in its tenth year, the taskforce comprised of prosecutors and representatives from law enforcement agencies across the state has arrested more than 370 people suspected of soliciting sex from children online, resulting in more than 240 convictions.
“We’re trying to teach kids to be self-aware,” Wilson, a first-term Republican and father of two young children, told The Associated Press recently. “My job is not only to protect you from predators but protect you from yourself.”
Henry McMaster, Wilson’s predecessor and fellow Republican, got the taskforce up and running after state legislators in 2003 passed a law specifically making it a crime for an adult to solicit sex from a minor online. In those days, McMaster said, South Carolina was among only a handful of states tackling the issue in such a way. Now, all 50 states have official groups engaged in ways to keep children safe while they are on the Internet.
“The effort has just taken off,” McMaster said recently. “There’s a crying need for it because everything is on the Internet these days.”
Part of the taskforce’s duty lies in training law officers from around the state effective ways to engage possible predators online by posing as children. Wilson and representatives from his office also travel to schools and community groups to talk directly with parents, teachers and children about what they can do to make sure they don’t fall into traps.
“Kids are no longer molested behind schoolyards anymore and people are no longer robbed in dark allies,” Wilson said. “All of this stuff happens through the Internet.”
The cases Wilson’s team investigates have varying components. In December, a Berkeley County was sentenced to 16 years in prison after pleading guilty to disseminating images of children being sexually abused. In that case, South Carolina officers began investigating after getting a tip from police in Florida, where undercover officers came across the traded images.
Last June, a U.S. Army recruiter from South Carolina was sentenced to four years after pleading guilty to having sexual online and text conversations with a 13-year-old girl. Members of Wilson’s taskforce worked with officers in Missouri to work that case, which involved combing through chats the man and the girl had on social media networking site MySpace.
Some of the lessons involve teaching children that even images they share among themselves could lead to trouble. For example, Wilson says, someone who sends a naked picture of a minor to another person -- even from one friend to another -- could actually be charged with disseminating child pornography.
“Everyone has a smartphone with a camera in it. They take photographs of everything, no matter how stupid it is, and it gets out there,” Wilson says. “What they think is a flippant or a funny thing to do, it actually could be a felony.”
To help raise awareness, Wilson has teamed with companies like Facebook to talk directly to students about online dangers. During a trip to a Columbia-area high school last fall, Wilson and Facebook executives cautioned students against giving out too many details in their social networking status updates, like where they are going or what after-school activities they’re involved in.
Wilson says Facebook is planning to return in the fall. This week, Wilson says he’s visiting various schools around the state to repeat some of those same lessons and is holding a town hall at Lexington’s Meadow Glen Middle School on Friday with Internet safety consultant Joe Laramie.
As technology evolves, Wilson says he and the dozens of law enforcement agencies that are part of his task force have to constantly keep up with the latest trends among children and predators alike.
“This is new frontier, and we’ve got to get used to it,” Wilson said. “Law enforcement has to be flexible and adaptable. Otherwise, they’re going to get left behind.”