Q&A with Bill Latchford, founder of Protect Children Online

You’ve devoted much of your time to ensuring children remain safe from Internet predators, including speaking to parents and youths and starting the website www.protectchildrenonline.org. How did you first get started working on this issue?

My advocacy started out about eight years ago when I was channel surfing and came across a show called “To Catch a Predator.” This show clued me into the threat of Internet predators and finding out that there are as many as 50,000 Internet predators online at any given time only fuels my passion to continue raising awareness about this issue.

We’ve all heard the term “stranger danger,” and were taught not to take candy from strangers, but how does that cross over to online interactions?

On the web, “stranger danger” basically means an Internet predator. When we think of “stranger danger,” we often think of the man at the edge of the playground in a trench coat peering through the bushes at the kids while they are playing, who wants to try to kidnap a child. Internet predators are essentially the same as the guy in the trench coat, but computers are their bushes and the Internet is their playground. Now that is one huge playground. With so many Internet predators out there hiding behind a wall of anonymity, it can be even more dangerous for children to be unsupervised on a computer than at a playground.

Many times predators masquerade as children to entice them to share sexual photos or videos. What other dangerous tactics should parents be aware of to better protect their children?

A new tactic many Internet predators use is “sextortion.” This is where the predator tricks a child into providing a sexual photo or video and then uses it against the child to get more of this material or force a meeting from the child.

This is obviously a very important and growing issue. What action have you taken to learn more about this topic and help children stay safe?

I tasked myself to alert my community to this particular threat by educating myself on the issues and then actually going after a few of these predators. After studying their tactics and building skills for around six months, I thought I was ready to try and bring these horrific predators to justice. There were so many of these people out there willing to talk about sex with what they thought were 13-year old girls – it made me sick. Ultimately, at least three dangerous predators are off the streets and not soliciting children online because of me.

I know you travel around the country speaking to different groups about what they can do to prevent the online victimization of children, but how do they respond to this issue? Do they believe it is a serious threat?

I start all my talks off with parents, groups or students with a simple question: Does anyone here believe that I am a 13-year old girl? I usually get a combination of confused looks and chuckles. Then I tell them about the three men I helped bring to justice who posed as young children online to lure innocent victims to sharing information. Overall, I take this very seriously and by the time I am done presenting, the rest of the audience takes it seriously as well.

All of this is very intense. What advice would you give to someone who wants to combat this issue, but doesn’t want to be directly involved with taking down predators?

I have since stopped the decoy part of my advocacy after receiving late night calls and threats about what I was doing. I did, however, put together an online presence that is doing so much to raise awareness about Internet predators and other threats affecting our children online. My advice is to just be aware. This issue is so prevalent in our society and we need to do all we can to raise awareness and let people know that these dangerous predators exist in the dark corners of the Internet, waiting to prey on unsuspecting children.

This can all sound very overwhelming for a parent. How can they ensure that their children won’t fall prey to a predator’s tactics?

Prevention and open lines of communication are the keys here. The danger is that many children don’t let their parents know what they are dealing with online because they’re ashamed or they don’t want to lose their Internet privileges. Parents need to talk with their children and make them fully aware that they can bring any troubling online issues to them without fear of repercussions. Only then will our children trust adults enough to bring this activity to light.