A few weeks ago, a six-foot yellow cat named Cheezo visited my sons’ school to talk about Internet safety.
What does a cat know about that?
Well, this particular cat is really a detective for Jefferson County, Colorado, who has been working on the Child Sex Offender Internet Investigation Unit since its launch in 2005. Since that date, Mike and Cassandra Harris, the husband and wife team who run the unit, have arrested 655 sexual predators, more than 45 of them in 2013.
The Unit’s approach is two-pronged, combining online investigation and police work with a preventative community-based education program.
The investigative work entails posing as children and teens on social networking sites popular with young people: anything from Club Penguin, which a six year old might frequent, to Instagram and others, where adolescents connect. They chat with others, make friends, exchange fake photos, and gather just enough information to identify whether the new “friend” is really who they say are. Once they know that they are truly communicating with a child or teen, they end the “friendship”.
But often enough to concern any parent, the Harris duo discovers an adult sex offender attempting to set a trap, a photo exchange, a meeting at a local diner or park.
Video of the arrests, shown as part of the Cheezo parent education program, send shivers down a mother’s spine. For example, in 2013, a fifty-one year old male, a forty-three year old male, a twenty-five year old male were among those arrested in Colorado stings as a result of these investigations. All were pretending to be teenagers with stolen photos and faked bios.
That’s what a cat knows about that.
As a parent looking around the room during one of these presentations, you see your own shock reflected on the faces of your peers. “My kid is on that site!” “I had no idea!” “He would never give out his name, would he?” “She would never put her picture online, would she?”
Yet the Harris’ educational campaign makes no effort to stop young people from using the Internet. They just want them to be savvy and safe. So they have developed age-appropriate presentations that address K-3rd graders, 4th-5th graders, middle and high schoolers, plus adults. Cheezo the Cat talks about “stranger danger” on the Internet with the youngest group. Social networking sites and cell phone safety are covered with the 4th and 5th graders. “Sexting” is added to the curriculum for adolescents.
As the parents left the auditorium at my sons’ school after our version of the Cheezo presentation, my kids were walking in. I grabbed one of them and said, “Listen to this very carefully, okay?”
They came home talking mostly about the “cool” arrests, but they did not quite understand the bad guys’ plans. I was okay with that. It probably is not necessary to understand Cheezo’s two most important lessons for them:
- Do not share your name, address, school or other personal information with anyone you have not met face to face
- Never post photos of yourself on the Internet
As published on the Cheezo website, the guidelines for parents include:
- Educate yourself, then your child
- Teach children not to share personal information or photos on the Internet
- Install an Internet filter or family safety software to filter dangerous content; cell phones offer similar services
- Know the sites your children frequent
- Talk to your children about encountering pornography
- Manage your child’s time on the Internet
- Set Internet guidelines for your family and enforce consequences when not followed
- Keep computers and cell phones out of children’s bedrooms
- If you do not understand a site or game your child plays, have them to teach it to you
- Make sure your kids understand that on a game site, they should not share information not pertinent to the game they are playing
- Start early building a trusting relationship with your children so they are less likely to hide their “friends”
The Cheezo team is dedicated to keeping all children safe, and they frequently take their program on the road to schools and events around Colorado. They have also been featured on Oprah, Dr. Phil and ABC News, among others. To find out more, parents, teachers and children can go here.
Now, that is a cool cat!