INVESTIGATORS: Online predators - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Online predators

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Children will always love to play in the twilight, running around with their friends in the gloaming -- and parents will forever try to protect them from those lurking in the shadows.

Just a few feet away in a church basement in Burnsville, they're learning about a world that -- technically speaking -- their kids know much better than they do.

"In a lot of cases, kids know more about technology," Shawn Neudauer, with the Boy Scouts, said. "There are some parents in that room that don't use the Internet."

Now, Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are getting a crash course in online predators. The Cub Scouts go upstairs for Internet 101 while the older Boy Scouts learn about bullying and sexting -- but the truly scary stuff is saved for the parents.

"We're talking about anything -- adults having sex with babies," Homeland Security Special Agent Chris Oelkers said.

Oelkers tracks down child predators in Minnesota and beyond, and he's delivering the reality check that online predators aren't just creepy men living in their parents' basements.

"Doctors, lawyers, unfortunately police officers," Oelkers listed.

It could be Bradley Schnickel -- a married Minneapolis cop with children of his own who spent time off having sex with 13 and 14-year-old girls he met through Facebook. Or, it could be Sean Jabbar -- a married molecular biologist living in Minneapolis who federal prosecutors say was part of a major child porn ring where members would pretend to be young girls online in order to convince teen boys -- 12 in Minnesota alone -- to masturbate in front of their web camera.

"They asked the boys to do sexual things on camera, and they taped it, and they sold it, and they traded it," Oelkers explained.

According to the National Center for Exploited or Missing Children, the average online predator is usually a man aged 26 or older. Generally, they're not pedophiles -- attracted to prepubescent children. Instead, the online predator tends to like victims a little older, between the ages of 13 and 15.

Usually, online predators don't abduct their victims -- and they rarely lie about being an adult. That's because, sadly, they don't have to.

"They can turn the victim against their parents," Neudauer warned. "'They don't understand you; I'm your friend, you should run away from home.'"

Kids now become familiar with smart phones and tablets almost from birth, and Oelkers admits he doesn't think parents realize how soon they should speak with their children about it.

"Unfortunately, children younger and younger are getting on the Internet," Oelkers said.

Four out of 10 children younger than 2 are now using mobile devices, and that number jumps to 7 out of 10 children below the age of 8, according to the Common Sense Media Survey.

Who knows where they may wonder on the worldwide web? Research suggests that children as young as 8 are now routinely exposed to Internet pornography. The average age was once 12 to 14, back when all you had to worry about was a stack of Playboys under the bed.

If your kids are pre-teens, experts recommend finding out what their favorite things to do online are and then discuss how personal information fits in -- especially why it should be kept private.

As for what to do if someone online wants to meet face-to-face, many conversations are in order for teenagers.

TIP SHEETS: Net Smartz resources

Experts also recommend teaching kids the "six clicks" rule to show how the smallest piece of information on their Facebook page can lead to so much more information.

Most importantly, however, it's important to teach children that what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet.

"The parents have to dive into the deep end of the pool with Internet applications because It's changing every day," Oelkers said.

Consider SnapChat, which just settled a case with the Federal Trade Commission last week because of their hollow promise that those web camera shots vanish when they really stick around a lot longer.

The bottom line is that parents need to do their homework, keep up with technology and know their kids' passwords as well as check their browser history.

"We don’t' want you to go home and pull the Internet out of the wall," Oelkers assured.

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