This is a review I wish I didn’t have to write, about a couple of sites I wish didn’t have to exist, especially on Thanksgiving weekend. But, frankly, my family is one of the things I’m thankful for and keeping them safe is one of the things that occasionally keeps me up at night. So forgive me if this column brings you down a bit today, but trust that this is information you need to have.

Shortly after I arrived at work this morning, I received an email from Family Watch Dog informing me that a sex offender had recently “moved into my area.” Family Watch Dog was started in August, 2005, as a method of visually representing the data found in various public records relating to sex offenders because the founders were “tired of reading stories about missing 9 and 10 year old children killed by registered sex offenders, and decided to do something about it.” The site provides maps labeled with colored squares that represent sex offenders and provides their names, offenses, addresses, and photographs.

For the basic mapping function, the site works as intended. There are also sections dedicated to helping you learn how to best keep your kids safe and, for registered members, they’ll also inform you when an offender moves within a specified range (up to 5 miles) of three addresses you want to track. Unfortunately, I’ve found some ongoing problems with missing links and updating your member profile seems unusually difficult. Still, this is a simple, powerful service, and it’s easy to overlook the site’s shortcomings in favor of their core purpose.

Anyone who knows me, or has been at least an occasional reader of this column, knows that I’m a huge proponent of the opportunities presented by the Internet. But I’m also a realist, and I recognize that these same opportunities present some unique challenges for all of us in protecting ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve written often about identity theft, and by now you should be able to recite a checklist of things to do to help protect yourself. The same goes with viruses, trojan horses, and other nefarious software products. Unfortunately, there’s also a seedier human element lurking out there, and their target is very often the most innocent among us: our children.

The Internet has provided the means by which people who would prey on children can do so from the comfort and relative safety of their own homes, most often through the most inconspicous of technologies: instant messaging.

Using the chat capabilities of programs like AOL, these people are targeting children – children who are often lonely, depressed, or lacking in love and attention – and promising to help fill their needs. Unfornately, these predators have black hearts.

Perverted Justice is a site dedicated to two things: working to stop these predators through a creative ruse and educate parents and their kids on how to avoid being a victim. They’ve gotten the most media attention recently regarding the first of these, but the second is probably more important.

Their creative ruse, which started in Washington state and has spread across the country thanks to specially-trained volunteers, is to log onto chat rooms and pose as young children, both boys and girls, and wait to be contacted by predators. Lest you think this seems silly or a waste of time, simply spend a few minutes on the site reading the chilling transcripts from these encounters. They will then arrange to meet the predator, and show up with a reporter and camera crew in tow. They’ll then post images, email addresses, phone numbers, and chat “handles” along with the transcript. In the interest of fairness, they’ll also let the predator have an opportunity to respond.

The more important function of the site is raising awareness among parents and children that people like this exist (apparently in disturbing quantities). In addition, the site offers several resources to help parents discuss this issue with their children and offers tips on how to keep your kids safe. The site is well organized and thoughtful, and is absolutely required reading for anyone with kids who are old enough to use the computer.

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