Cyber risk real, AG tells Hernando High students

Attorney General Bill McCollum visits his alma mater to warn students about online sex predators.

By TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 19, 2007

BROOKSVILLE -- Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum got a rousing Leopards' welcome Thursday at his alma mater, Hernando High School.

But this wasn't a visit for old time's sake, and the 1962 alumnus got right to the point.

McCollum told students they're targets, every one of them, of Internet sex predators. Every time they go online, they're in danger of being lured into virtual or face-to-face contact with pedophiles.

"This is sick stuff, people collect this," he told his suddenly quiet audience, referring to child pornography traded by adults on the Web. "Hopefully, none of you are victims of this."

The visit was part of McCollum's statewide campaign to raise awareness of the issue and prosecute violators through his office's Child Predator CyberCrime Unit.

"It's the biggest single problem facing the Attorney General's Office," he said.

About 77-million children surf the Internet every day in the United States, and one in seven of them are solicited for sex, he said. Make that one in five children at the middle school level.

Florida ranks fourth in the nation as a source for child pornography, McCollum said. And children often fuel that supply by sending images of themselves to friendly seeming adults, or adults posing as peers.

"Would you post those same pictures on a big billboard by the highway?" he asked students. "You can mess up your life just by the pictures you post."

By a show of hands, most of the 100-some students in the audience said they had a personal MySpace or Facebook site and more than 100 registered friends.

A few had 200 or more contacts, and McCollum said it was likely they didn't really know them all.

Most students said they were familiar with some of the abbreviated queries adults have used to lure children, like A/S/L Age, sex, location and LMIRL (Let's meet in real life.)

But several said they weren't aware the threat was so serious.

"I didn't know it was that bad," senior Andreal Plummer said. "You know there's bad people out there, but we really don't talk about it that much."

McCollum invited students to visit a new state Web site dedicated to protecting children, www.safeflorida.net/safesurf , or his MySpace site at www.myspace.com/florida_cpcu.

And he said student help could make the difference in putting predators behind bars.

"I know you guys are being solicited," McCollum said. "If you're being solicited, report it. It's important."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.