Parents advised to watch Web

Sheriff’s Department officials are advising parents to take certain precautions to protect their children from sexual predators using the Internet to prey on young people.

A couple of high profile local cases reported by authorities in recent weeks have highlighted the potential dangers of the Internet.

Bradford Mitchell, 52, traveled from Michigan to San Luis Obispo in December to have sex with a 16-year-old girl after communicating with her in an online chat room at There.com and through the online phone and chat service Skype over the course of several months.

Mitchell was sentenced March 10 to two years for sex crimes against the girl.

On March 15, 43-year-old Lionel Meza of Illinois was arrested on suspicion of engaging in sexual activity with a 16-year-old Arroyo Grande girl he met on the blogging site LiveJournal.

The department also advises parents to use programs that restrict Web browsers so that children can’t access chat rooms and other Internet sites that may make them vulnerable to sex predators.

Brandy Swain, the department’s crime prevention specialist, said parents should either have access to the usernames and passwords their children use for social networking Web sites such as Facebook or be “added as a friend” so they can monitor their child’s activities.

Swain said that posting seemingly innocent photos — such as teens in bathing suits — can attract predators. But if parents have access to the page they can see what’s being posted.

Swain also said that sheriff’s officials recommend parents don’t allow their children to have cell phones with photography capabilities because of problems they’ve seen with so-called sexting, which involves people sending sexually explicit messages or photos through their phones.

And they recommend parents don’t allow their children to send text messages because of the potential for problems with secretive communications, sheriff’s officials say.

Criminals often groom their victims by developing a relationship of trust, sometimes over several months, Swain said. “For some of the victims, time equals trust,” Swain said. “They think that if he’s been talking to me for six months he must really care about me.”

Often the predators will make the victims feel beautiful and send gifts or cell phones for their private communications and ask them to send nude photographs, and then set up a meeting, Swain said.

“They’re going to try to segregate you (children) from family and friends,” Swain said. “If they can draw (children) away from (their) family and friends, they become the person you trust.”

Swain said that the department offers free safety presentations to parents and other groups, including school officials, on a regular basis on sex crime, cyberbullying, and other topics.