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Video: Teens can be easy targets online

By Rob Stafford Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/9/2006 10:06:41 PM ET 2006-04-10T02:06:41

This report aired on Dateline Sunday, April 9

He says his name is Matt— it’s not. He says he’s new to town— he’s not. And he says he’s 19— not even close. 

But that’s how he portrays himself to the kids “befriending” him online on the social networking site, MySpace.com. 

Would your child let a stranger into his or her online world?

The fictitious cyber teen known as “Matt” was created as an experiment and his instant popularity revealed to one small town just how vulnerable its children are.

When MySpace was launched in 2003, it functioned mostly as a forum for musicians, a speed-of-light way for bands to spread the word out about their music for bands— like the new group Quietdrive, who has received more than half a million downloads on MySpace before even releasing its first single.

"It’s made all the difference in what we do," says Kevin Truckenmiller, Quietdrive lead singer. "It’s helped us promote for virtually free."

Not surprisingly, MySpace caught on like wild fire with kids.  Even the pop culture figures they love use the site to reach fans.

There are lots of other social networking sites like Facebook and Xanga, but MySpace is the giant among them, boasting more than 60 million users. It attracted media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s eye. Last summer, he bought the site for $580 million.

At its best, MySpace is a place where users keep in touch with friends and express their creativity by designing personalized profiles.  It has almost replaced the telephone for after school gossiping.

Rachelle: It’s just a fun way for friends to talk.

Brittany:  There’s like music and stuff on there that I listen to on a daily basis.

Amber: To me, it is, sort of like my life.

But MySpace also has a hidden danger. Police say predators troll the site, and others like it, looking for vulnerable children, sometimes very young ones.  Even though the site’s rules require users be at least 14, on MySpace it’s easy to pretend: even preteens are making profiles and can be among the targets.   

"This Web site is a sexual predator’s dream and a parent’s worst nightmare," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. Blumenthal  says he’s been inundated by calls from schools and parents angry about the site. 

But there is one community in his state that has been hit hardest:  Middletown, Connecticut.  Earlier this year, seven teenage girls there contacted police in the course of just 5 weeks saying they were sexually assaulted by men they met through MySpace.

The police and several local schools have made a huge push to try to educate residents.  They’ve put on Internet safety seminars and workshops that teach parents how to navigate MySpace.

So if any town should have its guard up, you’d think it would be Middletown. But that’s not what a local police officer found when he decided to test just how cautious the teenagers around here were.  Dateline was invited to see first hand how the experiment would unfold.

“19-yr-old Matt” is actually Detective Frank Dannahey. He came up with “Matt,” who just moved to town.  Like many MySpace users, he used an anime cartoon character  instead of a photograph.  Matt’s a baseball fan, he plays pool and loves his iPod.

Dannahey began contacting Middletown teens through their MySpace profiles, writing that he was new to the community, and asking them to add him to something called their “friend list.”

Det. Frank Dannahey: It quickly became apparent that I could get all kinds of friends. It was just that easy.  Within less than a two week period, I have over 100 friends online.

Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: More than 100 friends?

Det. Dannahey:  And that’s not even being aggressive.  I mean if I had some devious intents, I think I could have hundreds of friends in that period of time.

Here’s how MySpace works:  anybody can create a profile and anybody with a computer can visit that page. Users under 16 have their profiles set to “private” by MySpace.com as a way of blocking instant access. If you, the visitor, want more information, you can ask to be accepted as a “friend.”  Once you’re a “friend” nothing is private.  And accumulating friends on MySpace is a badge of honor. “Matt” made lots of them, getting easy access to many “private” pages.

Stafford:  You’re getting the phone numbers and addresses?

Det. Dannahey:  Real names.

Stafford:   Real names.

Det. Dannahey: Real dates of birth.

Stafford: Where they go to school.

Det. Dannahey:  Where they go to school.  What grade they’re in.

Stafford:  After school activities?

Det. Dannahey: Anything you’d wanna know.If I was a parent, I don’t think I could hire a private investigator to get me more information than these kids are giving out on their Internet pages.

Some of “Matt’s” new online pals asked him a few questions before accepting him as a “friend.”  But about half let him in no questions asked.  Many got into online chats with him, and it didn’t take long for one girl to post one of the most dangerous responses that could be made to a stranger online. 

It’s a parent’s dreaded scenario.

These 3 moms are about to see for the first time how their daughters have interacted online with the so-called “new kid” in town.  Luckily for the mothers of Amber, Rachelle and Brittany, new guy “Matt” is really a police officer conducting an experiment.

Rob Stafford, Dateline correspondent: This is your daughters’ friend, who they think is 19-year-old Matt.

Amber’s mom was the first to peer into her daughter’s MySpace profile.

Stafford: What did you find out about Amber?

Det. Dannahey, who posed as “19-year-old Matt” on MySpace: Let’s look at her page.

15-year-old Amber has a private page, but Det. Dannahey says, after she asked just a couple of questions about where he lived and went to school—she allowed him onto her profile.  Once he was on, he quite easily found a lengthy survey Amber had completed. In it was reams of personal information such as her favorite TV show,  actor, the music she listens to, even her favorite hobby.  These likes and dislikes may sound harmless but according to Dannahey they’re just the kind of details a predator collects to try to forge a bond with a child.

Det. Dannahey: As you could see, 377 questions is every possible thing that you’d wanna know about a teen.

Stafford: Did you have any idea that Amber was putting that kind of information?

Amber’s mom:  No, not at all.  I knew she was on MySpace, but I didn’t know anything like this. I don’t believe it.

Stafford:  How hard do you think it would be for someone to find your daughter?

Amber’s mom:  Not hard at all.

Det. Dannahey:  If I was a predator, and I’ve worked with—you know, talking to those guys online and knowing what they do—this is the kind of information somebody could pull up in front of your house and ring your door bell.

Amber’s mom:  No.  No, very naive.

Now it was Rachelle’s mom’s turn.  Her first surprise was that her daughter still had a profile on MySpace.

Rachelle’s mom: We had a conversation with her last year and told her she needed to delete her profile, watched her delete her profile.  She obviously put another up.

Stafford: She’s tenacious.

Rachelle’s mom: She is.  She’s a very bright child. 

Stafford:   Who has some explaining to do?

Rachelle’s mom:   Yeah, definitely.   

At first glance, 15-year-old Rachelle’s page looked fairly safe.  She said she was from Germany and didn’t include her last name.  But that didn’t stop one of her friends—in this case, Amber—from using Rachelle’s full name in a message posted on her site.

Det. Dannehy:  Is that your last name?

Rachelle’s mom: Yes.

Det. Dannahey: So now you have a picture, and a name to match that.

Again, it may sound like a small thing.  But according to Dannahey a photo and a full name are the basic essentials in a predator’s toolkit.

And there was something worse:  When Det. Dannahey’s online alter ego asked to be allowed onto Rachelle’s private page, she let him on without asking a thing.  Once on he could see that all of her friends are from Middletown, raising doubts about her living in Germany.  What’s really frightening, like Rachelle’s other 250 “friends”  he now got her bulletins—messages that MySpace users create that go to all of their friends.

And one set off an alarm for Dannahey. Rachelle sent out a bulletin that included, “We’re gonna walk to Taco Bell and KFC.”

Rachelle sent what she likely thought was an innocent note to her friends about a walk they were going to take to Taco Bell and KFC.

Det. Dannahey:  Of course if I’m sitting home at my computer and I now get this bulletin and I know it’s in real time and I guess if I wanted to get in my car and had indication where you live, I could kind of intercept them there.

Odds are that information isn’t going to fall into the wrong hands. Now that she’s seen her daughter’s profile, Rachelle’s mom understands how dangerous this could be.

Rachelle's mom: Yeah, who else is she talking to?  And who else is she doing this with and putting these notes out there, not even thinking about the fact that somebody could just take advantage of that.

Finally, Brittany’s mom. And she has to confront something very disturbing about her daughter’s online life.

Det. Dannahey: As you can see, I have quite a few messages from—

Of the three girls, 16-year-old Brittany interacted online the most with Det. Dannahey’s fake persona.  He showed her mom a comment he found deeply troubling. In a note to “Matt,” Britanny said, “We should meet up sometime.”

Det. Dannahey:  If you read that line, that would be—

Brittany’s mom: That’s scary.  I had no idea that that was there. She wants to meet with him.  Oh my god.  And we talked about it.  And she told me she was on private.  You know, we’ve talked about it.  “There’s no information on there.  She would never, ever meet anybody ever.  Ever.” 

Det. Dannahey: I think she trusted me.

Brittany’s mom:  But she trusted you enough to  meet with you. And I feel I’m a protective mother, because I really know where she is pretty much all the time. I mean I’m shaking.  I feel like I’m gonna—I don’t know.  I’m scared.  I’m really scared.

Rachelle’s mom:  I just feel sick to my stomach, really sick to my stomach, because you know you talk to your kids and you trust them.  But you can’t trust anyone else.

Det. Dannahey: No, and I’m sure I could re-enact this same experiment probably any town anywhere in America and get the same results.

Brittany’s mom:  Oh yeah. Definitely.

Rachelle’s mom: This is the most precious thing in my life, and I feel like it could just be ripped right out from my hands in the blink of an eye. And I wouldn’t have even known it was going on.

Just as their meeting was breaking up, Det. Dannahey noticed he was receiving a new message online.  And now Brittany’s mother found herself in the unique position of looking over “Matt’s” shoulder as he conversed with her 16-year-old daughter.

Stafford: Did you know Brittany was online right now?

Brittany’s mom:  No, she should be in bed.

And what does she read?  A goodnight message she can’t believe her daughter wrote. 

Stafford:  (reading Brittany’s computer message) “’I’ll talk to you later. Hugs.’”

“Hugs.”  And remember that’s directed at a guy Brittany’s never met, which makes it especially upsetting to her mom.

Stafford (to Brittany’s mom): To see this happening live right in front of you?

Brittany’s mom: It’s scary actually. It’s really scary.

It was an alarming evening for the mothers but just wait until their daughters get the wake-up call the next morning.

Det. Dannahey: They love to take photos of themselves. Predators just must go out of their minds for the fact that they have these sites where they get all this information.

Detective Frank Dannahey is about to introduce himself to three unsuspecting teenagers—Brittany, Rachelle, and Amber. They’re the girls who struck up a cyber friendship with his fake persona “Matt.”  And their moms are all in favor of the face-to-face meeting. 

Rachelle’s mom: I hope it’s a wake up call.

Amber’s mom: Yeah, they need a scare, I think.

But first we asked Amber, known online as “Ambercitaaa,” Brittany, a.k.a “pretty girl with a knife” and “Rachelle” how well they thought they were protecting themselves.

Stafford: Do you take precautions to protect yourself from predators?

Amber: Yeah.

Stafford: What do you do to be safe?

Rachelle:  You don’t put, like, your full name out there.  You know, where you live. I don’t add people I don’t know.  I don’t, you know, talk to people I don’t know.

Stafford: So you’re careful?

Rachelle: Yeah.

Stafford:  So do you post personal information?

Amber: There’s no way I would.

Stafford: Name, address, phone number?

Amber: Like I say my name’s Amber.  But that’s all I say.

Stafford:  Brittany?

Brittany: If people, like, talk to me that I don’t know, then I just—I just don’t talk to them.

Stafford:  You would know someone was trying to con their way into your life.

Brittany: Yeah. I’d know it.

Stafford: There’s a guy in town named Matt who has a MySpace page.  What do you know about him?

Amber:  Does he have a cartoon for a picture?

Stafford: I think so.

Amber: And he’s a college student.

Stafford: Tell me about him. What do you know about him?

Brittany: I went to his MySpace, and I saw that a lot of like people that I know had him as their friend.  So I just like added him.  And I was like “okay.” 

Now it was time for a big surprise for the three teens.

Stafford:  Would you like to meet Matt? He’s out in the hallway.

Detective Dannahey walks in.

Rachelle:  Hello.

Det. Dannahey:  Hey, Brittany.

Brittany: Hi.

Det. Dannahey: How are you?

Brittany:  Good.

Det. Dannahey: Hey, Rachelle. Hi, amber. Nice to meet you.

Amber:  Nice to meet you.

Det. Dannahey:  I’m Matt.

Stafford:   What do you think?

Rachelle: Do you have a badge?

Amber: Oh, god. You have a badge.

Stafford:  “Matt” is actually Detective Frank Dannahey.  Surprised?

Brittany:   Never would have thought.

Stafford:   No idea?

Brittany:   No idea.

Stafford: Did you believe Matt was really 19?

Brittany: I actually believed it.

Rachelle:  When he walked in, I was like. It’s true.  You can be deceived easily. 

The girls were willing to admit that much, but were quick to say that they hadn’t revealed anything to this stranger.

Stafford: You don’t think you gave him any private information?

Amber: No.  I don’t believe I did. 

Stafford: But what did you find out about Amber?

Det. Dannahey: Her real name.  Your birthday.  And you have a 377-- question survey in  your page,

Amber:  Oh!  I forgot about that.

Det. Dannahey:  ... which if I really was a predator, that would be just the kind of information that could maybe years ago, take me months talking to you to get that kind of information.

Stafford: Did you realize you’d given up that much information to someone you didn’t know?

Amber:  No.  I actually didn’t really. But that was my first survey that I’ve ever done before.  And like it looked cool.  And it was like—it took me an hour to do. I was really proud of myself.

Stafford: What did you find out about Rachelle?

Det. Dannahey:  Rachelle sends a lot of bulletins. 

Rachelle: Those are fun.

Remember the bulletin Rachelle posted that showed the time she wrote it and spelled out where she and her buddies were headed?  We reminded Rachelle about that.

Stafford:  On the bulletin you said exactly where you were gonna go with your friends.

Rachelle: To Taco Bell.

Amber:  That was our conversation!

Stafford: How hard would it be to find you?

Amber: Not that hard.

Det. Dannahey: Plus, your whole full name is on your page. 

Rachelle: Where’s my full name? (to Amber) Oh, you left me a comment.

Det. Dannahey: (to Amber)  Yes.  Yes.  I, unfortunately, got her name through your comment. So have—knowing that you’re from Middletown, Connecticut and knowing your full name. If you’re in the phone book, I could probably basically go and ring your doorbell.

And finally Brittany, the girl who offered an online hug and who said she wanted to meet up with Matt.

Brittany:  I don’t remember it like ever saying “I’m gonna meet up with you.” I don’t remember saying that.  I really don’t.

Det. Dannahey: You did. In one of our conversations, early on, you said, “We should meet some time.” 

Brittany: I really thought you were like one of my—‘cause like Amber and Rachelle said a lot of our friends were on there.  So I was just like, “yeah.”

Stafford:  Do you think you would have met him?

Brittany:  I wouldn’t go by myself.  I’m not that dumb.

Stafford:  Did you get to the point where you thought your space was really your space and only you and your friends were looking at it?

Rachelle:  Oh, yeah.  I thought I was pretty safe.  But I’m gonna double-check myself now.  I feel less confident.

Stafford:  I mean, millions of people do a ton more than you guys do.  They put name, addresses, phone numbers, pictures, provocative pictures.  You guys don’t do that.  But he had just a little bit, and he got more. 

Experiments like Det. Dannahey’s and safety meetings like the one we attended in Middletown are alerting parents that it is their responsibility to be more vigilant.

But how much responsibility should fall on the MySpace company itself? Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumental says—a lot. In February, he met with MySpace executives. 

Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal: I hope and I believe that MySpace will do better.  It must do better, or we will enforce the law to require that they do better.  My hope is that they will recognize their responsibility and provide a model for other social networking sites.

Three weeks ago, Blumenthal sent MySpace a letter requesting changes such as providing free software for parents that would block MySpace, banning users under the age of 16, and hiring independent monitors to report potential illegal activity on the site.

MySpace declined our repeated requests for an interview but told us in an e-mail that it’s deeply committed to providing a safe and secure environment for its users and has initiatives to protect them .  A third of its staff, about 90 people --  is dedicated to monitoring the site’s 63 million profiles for pornography and underage users.  MySpace also says it has deleted more than a quarter million underage profiles.

And late Friday, MySpace told dateline they have appointed a former federal prosecutor to oversee privacy, safety and law enforcement outreach.

Whatever social network your child uses there are easy steps you can take to reduce risks: Monitor your child’s profile regularly,  keep photos and personal details off, and put your child’s computer in an open area.

As for the moms whose three daughters were unwitting subjects in Det. Dannahey’s experiment, they say there are no more online secrets in their homes.

Brittany’s mom: I didn’t even have to ask her. She went right to her MySpace and changed the whole thing.

Rachelle's mom: I actually sat w/ her and had her go through each person that’s her friend on MySpace and tell me who they were. So that if she didn’t know their name, they came off the friends list.

Their girls say they’re grateful for their unexpected lesson in online dangers.  They’ve even joined detective Dannahey’s Internet safety presentations.

So it turns out that for Rachelle, Amber and Brittany, the person they thought was 19 year old “Matt” really is a friend.

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