BOISE – The internet, it's a powerful tool that we can connect to anytime, anywhere.
With all the good that comes with it, there are also very real dangers, especially for our children.
We live in an information age, cell phones, tablets, computers, gaming consoles – they're everywhere.
They connect us to social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, MySpace, instant messaging applications and even face-to-face chatting.
While on those sites we update our status, send pictures and share personal information. But over sharing personal information, or simply not knowing where the dangers are can bring devastating consequences, especially for children.
"Absolutely the internet is dangerous for children to be on unsupervised and parents not knowing what they're doing," said Detective Ryan Pacheco with the Idaho Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Pacheco is one of nine law enforcement officers who make up the Idaho Crimes Against Children Task Force. He spends his day fighting digital predators.
"It is scary, and there's nine of us in this office, and we're all busy," said Pacheco.
In January a grand jury indicted a Caldwell man, 20-year-old Alex Rangel, accusing him of trying to lure dozens of young teenage girls into sex by using Facebook and other social media sites. He's currently in the Ada County jail. His next court appearance is February 12.
"If you're a predator out there looking for kids to take advantage of, you're going to go where the kids are and where they're hanging out," said Pacheco.
Right now it's sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but it's constantly changing and evolving as technology changes. The Pew Research Center found nearly nine of 10 people kids talk to online are strangers.
"I can't tell you how many times a victim told me it all started out so normal and so innocent, and then all of a sudden, somewhere down the line when that predator got comfortable enough, he took it down a dark road," said Pacheco.
Pacheco says that dark road lures in those from all walks of life, some victims as young as five years old.
"There is no cookie cutter victim in these types of crimes," said Pacheco.
He says predators groom the victims over days weeks and months. They develop a friendship with the child.
"That's how these kids, a lot of times, get talked into doing things they wouldn't normally do and probably know they shouldn't do, but they've developed some sort of connection with this person," said Pacheco.
What’s even scarier is just a few weeks ago Pacheco had a case of an 11-year-old boy playing on online game through the Xbox and began chatting with a 30-year-old man. The older man showed the boy how to use the camera then had him take his clothes off.
"The game consoles are just as dangerous as anything else that connects to the internet. If it connects to the internet, it's dangerous," said Pacheco.
It's that camera that Pacheco says can get people into trouble.
"That would be my number one rule, don't give your kids anything that can snap pictures," said Pacheco.
If they already have a device that can take pictures, see if the camera can be disabled through parental controls. It's that parental control or parental involvement that Pacheco says is key to keeping kids safe.
"Every time we get proficient in investigating a certain website or how we work dealing with these cases on a website, something new pops up," said Pacheco.
That's why Karrie VanLeuven and her husband take an active role in their kids' lives.
Her daughters with Facebook accounts have them on condition. Mom is friends with them so she can see all of their posts and their friend’s posts as well.
The girls also only friend people on Facebook who are face-to-face friends.
"I don't friend anyone at school who I don't talk to even though I may I know them, but I don't know them," said Karrie's daughter Katy VanLeuven.
Pacheco urges kids to go one step further, make the account private.
"Only their friends should be able to see what they're sharing,” said Pacheco. “That's the most basic thing you can do.”
To help parents know what their kids are doing online there are companies like uknowkids.com.
It's one of many paid services that allow parents to monitor their child's social network activity, phone activity and then break it down for parents so they know what their kids are doing online.
"When kids know that their parents are engaged, and they have access to their choices, they'll tend to make better choices," said Tim Woda, co-founder of uknowkids.com.
VanLeuven agrees that some parents could use this help.
"If you have a lot of teens or even a teen who is on a lot of social media, I would think it would be a very helpful too," said VanLeuven.
Bottom line, despite all that Pacheco and his team do to keep kids safe, the first line of defense is at home.
"Knowledge is power, and that's been our theory. The more they know, the wiser decision they can make," said VanLeuven.
Since knowledge is power, knowing what your kids say on the internet can be very helpful.
Do you know the codes? Acronyms like DOC, KPC, 9 and WYCM have meanings that parents should know.
- DOC means Drug of Choice.
- KPC means Keeping Parents Clueless.
- 9 means a parent is watching.
- WYCM means Will You Call Me.
To arm you with that knowledge, the Office of the Attorney General has a booklet called Internet Lingo Dictionary: A Parents' Guide to Codes Used in Chat Rooms, Instant Messaging, Text Messaging, and Blogs. It's free to parents. Many school resource officers have them as well.