Online predators are a major concern for any parent of a tech-savvy child. But one Toronto dad’s fears recently became a reality when he discovered an email addressed to his 12-year-old daughter. So, what did he do? He turned the tables on the man.
Ohio man Nicholas Bowers, 30, has been sentenced to 22 years in prison thanks to the intrepid work of Cliff Ford, who posed as his preteen daughter in an email exchange with the predator.
Ford has access to all his kids’ social media accounts, and their emails are automatically forwarded to his cellphone. When he spotted an email targeted at his daughter—with the opening line of “Hey sexy”—Ford's guard went up. He went into overdrive and immediately took over his daughter’s account. As it turns out, she'd had previous contact with Bowers via a chatroom in the days leading up to the email.
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He spent the next few days posing as his daughter and teasing out information about the man, including his address and even the model of his car. The messages got increasingly sexual over the days. According to the CBC, Bowers wrote in one email: “It turns me on a lot now knowing you are 12.” Ford received a video of Bowers masturbating, which Ford said made his blood boil. After that, he knew that he had to end the email relationship and go to the police. Toronto police contacted Akron, Ohio law enforcement who then arrested Bowers and discovered that he was part of a child pornography ring.
He was arrested last January and was sentenced to 22 years in prison just last week, partially thanks to Ford’s testimony.
The highs and lows of this story make me dizzy! For parents, like me, who don’t hold all their kids' online passwords, or whose kids’ emails aren’t forwarded to their phone—what can we do? I'm a fan of Devorah Heitner’s "mentoring not monitoring" policies.
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We are bringing up digital natives who are smarter than we are online. Even a highly monitored child like Ford's daughter managed to give out her personal information to a stranger in a chatroom, right under her father's nose. The only answer to this situation is education and trust. Educate your kids on the dangers of sharing personal information online, and build trust with them so they know they can come to you if there's ever a situation that makes them uncomfortable.
CommonSenseMedia is a great resource for parents who are looking for advice on how to keep their kids safe online. As they say, your supervision of their online lives will diminish gradually as they get older. These tips for conversations should start early, and be held often.
1) Be a good digital citizen: Treat people online as you do in real life. Anything you wouldn’t do or say to a person to their face, should not be online.
2) Understand privacy and notification settings: Privacy sections are notoriously complicated and take time to complete. Do your homework before you set the privacy and make sure your kids have all their settings on private (and not Friends of Friends). Sites such as Facebook have pathways to report bullying and inappropriate behaviour, figure them out and teach your kid.
3) Some things are private: Kids can and do socialize online but they should know that they should keep some things to themselves—their name, address, their school, their team names and their neighbourhoods. But general information about their hobbies and pets is OK.
4) Don’t talk offline: It’s hard to explain to young kids, but they should know people aren’t always who they say they are online. They should not take conversations offline. If someone they don’t know talks to them, they should notify you.
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It’s the Wild West out there on the Internet. Cliff Ford caught one predator. Would you have gone as far as Cliff Ford?
Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.