Behind Closed Doors: Internet Sex Predators

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Summertime means more young people are at home, often unsupervised as they use the Internet. Many wonder what parents can do to protect their children from virtual sexual predators. Stephanie Good, an author and mother who goes undercover to help the FBI catch adults who use the web to prey on children, talks about her work.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR NEWS.

Coming up: the difference between being smart and being wise. It's my Can I Just Tell You commentary.

But first, every week we try to talk about difficult topics many people struggle with, the things we keep behind closed doors. Today, here are three words you don't want to hear in the same sentence - Internet, kids, sex. There's been so much talk about how to root out sexual predators trolling for kids online. But there's another side of the story, too - kids with time on their hands who may not know how to stay safe. What do they need to know?

Author Stephanie Good has written a book about her own experience with a predator who targeted her family. It's called "Exposed: The Story of a Mother's Undercover Work with the FBI to Save Children from Internet Sex Predators." She joins us in our studio from New York to talk more about the book.

Ms. STEPHANIE GOOD (Author, "Exposed"): Oh, thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: In your book, you talk about the fact that sexual predators are no longer the traditional stranger kind of lingering around school playgrounds. How do Internet predators enter into victims' lives?

Ms. GOOD: Oh, it's very easy for them. They lurk in chat rooms and they look for vulnerable kids. And they know where to find them, just like I know where to find the predators. You know, you go around the chat rooms and you get used to where you are and you get used to who's hanging out in them. And start learning how to look up people, there are directories, and people have profiles that you can also check out, of course, you know, that not everybody is who they seem to be. So…

MARTIN: Have the social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, have those offered another opportunity?

Ms. GOOD: Oh, absolutely. Well, I'm not too familiar with what is available on Facebook. I know about the site. I do know that MySpace is rampant with sexual predators, absolutely.

MARTIN: I thought that there was supposed to be controls that were to keep adults off the sites that are directed at kids. Am I just being naive?

Ms. GOOD: Well, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOOD: To be honest with you, anybody can sign up on these sites, and most of them aren't, you know, monitored to see who the person really is. Some of these sites - like MySpace, for instance- it's a free site. So, I could sign on, and you'll notice that if you go on to the sites and you look at people's pages, a lot of people have an age that is not accurate.

For instance, I have a site there I just don't choose to put my real age on, so I put 99 years old. And that's what a lot of people do when they don't want you to know their real age. But that goes the same for kids. You know, kids are not suppose to have a public profile on there is they're under 14. And a lot of the kids do, because all you have to do is fill in the age yourself. Nobody's checking on that.

MARTIN: How do they insinuate themselves into this? Because I'm assuming that most parents have had the conversation with the kids about, you know, what is acceptable, what they should be doing at what age. So, how do these guys - and I assume it's mostly men. Is that correct?

Ms. GOOD: Well, I work with mostly men. There are women out there doing this, too, but…

MARTIN: Okay, so how do they approach kids online?

Ms. GOOD: Well, you know, especially if they find a child in a chat room, that is the easiest way for them to approach the child. And often, they'll start off as a child themselves. Some of them I find will come on and say, depending on the child's age, you know, if I say I'm 12, they'll say they're 14. And then some of them will just admit to being a little bit older than that, and they'll feel the child out.

They'll say, how do you feel about going out with an older guy? And then I might say how old? And then they may move their age up, you know, in increments, depending on how we receptive I am. If I say, I don't care how old the guy is as long as he's cool, they might say, well, you know, do you flirt with your dad's friends? You know, how old is your dad? And do you flirt with your teachers? And they have a way of manipulating a child to find out just how far they can go with them.

MARTIN: One of the things I noticed in your book is that when you pointed some sample conversations that you had had with people is that they're continually checking. Is it okay that I said this? Is it…

Ms. GOOD: Right.

MARTIN: …is it - do you mind, you know, telling me this? What's that about?

Ms. GOOD: Well, for one thing, they don't want to do anything that might offend me to the point where I'll run and tell my mother. And so, they are very careful, and they - like I said, that's just another way that they feel the child out to see how far they can go without getting into trouble.

MARTIN: Do these guys ever explicitly say don't tell your mother?

Ms. GOOD: Absolutely. One guy that I wrote about, he said he was a music teacher. He said he taught kids how to model, how to act, sing, dance, the whole shebang. And he started by offering me free lessons. That was his way to manipulate me. And, of course, I was receptive, and I do what I think a normal child will do. So, you know, what 13-year-old girl or 15-year-old girl -whatever age I was at that time - wouldn't want free dancing and singing and modeling lessons? Especially from a guy who says that he's been on Broadway and all, and he can put kids on Broadway. And he got to a point where he just said, you know, do what you have to do to meet me, you know, don't - he didn't say before as explicitly, it was just the way the conversation flowed, you know. I hadn't told my mother. Well, how do you think she'd feel? I don't think she'd like it. Well then, do what you have to do to be with me.

MARTIN: And it was also his - I guess his way of investigating how much supervision you were under. I'm talking with author Stephanie Good about her work in tracking down Internet sex predators. You have a personal connection to this issue…

Ms. GOOD: Yeah.

MARTIN: …which I'd like to talk about, which you write about in the book. Your son was not targeted by an Internet sex predator, but there was a person in your life who did target him. Can you talk about that?

Ms. GOOD: Sure. It was a religious ed instructor. And the man was soliciting my son for a few months, and he was actually doing what they called grooming. He was trying to make the child comfortable enough to get to the point where would have sex. But he also groomed everybody else. He groomed the people at the church. He groomed me and my husband into having us trust him enough to allow him into our home…

MARTIN: How did he do that?

Ms. GOOD: He was just a really nice guy who said he took an interest in our son because our son seemed somewhat quiet, which he was at the time. And it was a good time for him to do this in our lives, in a way, because my older son had just left for college. My two sons of several years apart in age. And so this man came along and he just said he could see how depressed my son was, having had his older brother leave, and he took an interest. So he sometimes stop by and dropped off comic books. And I was naive. I didn't think about sexual predators in those days. It's - you know, most parents really don't think about things like that.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. What did make you start to think that there was something wrong?

Ms. GOOD: I wish I could put my finger on one specific thing. I think it was just that there came a point in time where I said to myself, you know what? I really do think this man is hanging out a little bit too much. I don't see him hanging out with adults. And the other people that he hangs out with are also young, teen boys. And so, I started doing a little inquiry to people I knew that knew him from years ago, and I started hearing horror stories about his past.

MARTIN: Was your son uncomfortable - did he seem to be uncomfortable in his presence?

Ms. GOOD: Well, you know, the funny thing is is he was extremely uncomfortable, but I didn't pick up on it at all. I just knew, you know, my son didn't want to go to church anymore. I just figured he was going through a phase. A lot of kids don't want to get up and go to church on Sunday. And…

MARTIN: Well, that must have made you feel horrible when you found out.

Ms. GOOD: Oh…

MARTIN: But why didn't he tell you?

Ms. GOOD: Well, for one thing, when I had been in college, which was a little bit later than normal - I, you know, I was older when I went to college. This man had been the president of the student government when I was there, and he had been involved in a lot of the same issues that I was involved in. And so I sort of knew him. I didn't really know him personally, but we knew who each other were. And my son had heard me talk about that, so he pictured that this guy was an old friend. He was also a trusted member of the church, so my son just felt like, well, I'll just keep him away from me, but I won't tell because the guy was convincing him that nobody would believe him if he told.

MARTIN: Well, suffice it to say, you did go forward. You did make an attempt to bring this person to justice. You were able to get your son away from him before more damage was done. You then started working with the FBI, working undercover…

Ms. GOOD: Yes.

MARTIN: …trying to track down these Internet sex predators. How did that come about?

Ms. GOOD: Well, after that man who had been going after my son got out of jail, he was threatening us. We had to get an order for protection. But because of the way he plead down his charges, he wasn't on a sex offender registry. I just figured I had no way of knowing where he was. And I was afraid of him. So I went on to the Internet, thinking I could do a search, maybe I would figure out where he was, you know, if he lived in the neighborhood. And I couldn't find out the regular way, so I created a persona of a child, thinking that maybe I'll go into some chat rooms and somebody will just say, oh yeah, I know that guy. Yeah, he's one of my friends, and he comes over and he sees my brother all the time, something like that, very innocent.

And I created this persona of a young girl, and I went on and I went into some chat rooms. I really had to find my way around. I wasn't used to that. The very first night that I was on, I was bombarded with instant messages from older men wanting to have sex with me, thinking that I was a young girl. And I was just so horrified that the next morning, I called up the FBI office and I asked them if they were interested in this.

They came over to my house, probably to see if I was some kind of a nut who had a boyfriend that I was trying to get into trouble or something. But they came over, and we had a meeting. And there was one in particular, a person they were interested in that I had been speaking to. And they started an investigation on him, and it just developed into a relationship that's been going for four years.

MARTIN: Well, based on all this, Stephanie, talk to me about, you know, what are some of the some things that parents can do? I mean, and I think this conversation is particularly timely because it's summer now. And a lot of kids don't have the same rigorous schedule that they might have during the school year. They had lots of free time on their hands, and probably want to jump on the computer. It seems like a logical thing to do. What are some of the things that you should start looking for? Do you have a - do you let your kids have a computer in their rooms? I'm sure that's pretty typical these days. What are some of the things that a parent should look for?

Ms. GOOD: No, I don't think children should have a computer in their room. I really don't. Because, you know, as trustworthy as children may be, these guys are really good at what they do. They convince them to climb out of their windows to meet them. They offered them anything. So, no. I don't believe that children should be left alone on the Internet. I think they should have access to the Internet in a central location in the house where parents can walk by and see what they're doing.

Parents should have their passwords, and, you know, if a child is resistant to that, that's a red flag. Because if there's just innocent stuff going on, on the Internet, then a child shouldn't be resistant. And I'm not saying that they don't deserve some privacy. Of course, kids say things to their friends that parents don't always have to hear, and it doesn't meant they're doing something horrible. But I think that there are certain places that children go, and parents should be able to access those places. And the Internet is one of them.

MARTIN: How do you that, though? I mean, what do you do? Do you sit behind your kid when he's - he or she is instant messaging his friends?

Ms. GOOD: There are parental controls, and there are things that will catch - I won't give a specific program, you know, I won't advocate for a specific program. But there are, and just a little bit of research will show you. There are programs that you can use where you can go on the computer and see every place that your child has been and see everything that they've done and monitor chat rooms they've been in, things like that.

MARTIN: Is there a conversation you would urge parents to have with their kids when they're going online or as they are starting to learn to go online? Or even if they're already online now, what should parents be saying to their kids?

Ms. GOOD: Just from the feedback I've gotten it (unintelligible), the chats -the sample chats, they're not samples. I mean, they're actual chats that I've had with pedophiles and sexual predators. They really teach you what to watch out for. I've had some great feedbacks from parents, telling me that after showing their children the chats, some of the kids actually came back and said, gee, you know, somebody said those things to me. And I just thought they were cool. I thought they were just trying to be nice to me.

MARTIN: And what's you message to teens, finally, Stephanie?

Ms. GOOD: Oh, just as far as the Internet is concerned?

MARTIN: Mm hmm.

Ms. GOOD: You never know who you're talking to. You can never be sure if that person who says that they're 15 is really a 60-year-old man who's just waiting to attack you. And you really have to be so, so careful about who you trust when you're on the Internet. And the proof there is just that, I'm not really a 12-year-old girl, and I get all these guys to come out and meet me, and they go to jail for a very long time.

MARTIN: Oh, all right. Well, that's bracing. Stephanie Good is the author of the book "Exposed: The Story of a Mother's Undercover Work with the FBI to Save Children From Internet Sex Predators." She joined us from our New York bureau. Stephanie, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GOOD: Oh, thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

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