How could something like this happen? How could they counsel and protect their children in what increasingly seems like an online-all-the-time world?
Well, the Rock County Sheriff’s Office is offering a new tool to help parents be more aware of what their children are up to online.
“The Internet has a lot of wonderful qualities to it and has the wealth of information that can benefit your child,” Sheriff Robert Spoden said. “But it also has a lot of dangerous areas, and it also has areas where children of a certain age should not be going.”
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The sheriff’s office recently purchased more than 3,000 copies of the ComputerCop parental Internet monitoring software that allows users to view full text transcripts of websites, chat rooms, emails and social media sites that their children have accessed on the Internet.
“It’s a very useful tool for a parent, especially now. The Internet is a huge resource of data and a lot of it is collected by predators,” said Sgt. Jay Wood of the Rock County Sheriff’s Office. “(Online predators) know how to cyber stalk, and this is one of those things that assist parents and give them kind of an alert. The relevancy of this program is it’s more significant now than ever.”
The ComputerCop software also features a built-in thesaurus that includes about 5,000 trigger words that are either sexually explicit in nature, violent, profane or related to pornography. Users can add words to the thesaurus.
“That’s one of the beauties of it,” Spoden said about the ability to add trigger words. “Let’s say your son or daughter was running with a certain group of kids that you weren’t comfortable with. You could put their names in there and every time their names were brought up as conversation on the Internet, then it would flag it and you would see it.”
Wood said the ComputerCop software is relatively easy to install. The software is compatible with the Mac 10.6 operating system and the latest versions of Windows.
“It’s very simple to run. In fact, the manufacturers of ComputerCop are trying to get a patent for the phrase, ‘The Easiest Software to Run,’” Wood said. “You basically install it on your computer, there will be a short introduction by the sheriff, then it prompts you to select what you want to do, whether you want to view photos or images. There’s also phrases that it will view as well… This is universally compatible with just about any computer that is out there now that a family may have.”
Spoden recommends that parents use the program regularly.
“It’s not a one-time-only use,” he said. “You should be doing this on a weekly basis.”
Spoden said that if a parent notices that their child is chatting with someone suspicious online or viewing material that could be of concern, they should contact their local law enforcement agency.
“My guess is if that person is stalking or attempting to stalk your child, they’ve probably done it to other kids and are still probably doing it to other kids,” Spoden said. “The sooner we can find out who they are and bring them out into the light of day, the better.”
Parents should use the program to talk to their children about what they should and shouldn’t be viewing on the Internet, Spoden said.
“It’s really the wild west out there and in the law enforcement field we’re just now beginning to catch up,” Spoden said. “The key thing is you need to have a frank discussion with your children about what are legitimate uses of the computer and what are legitimate uses of the Internet.”
Wood said one of the downsides of the program is it does not allow users to create a filter or place a block on a website.
“There’s plenty of programs out there and within your own computer that will allow you to do that,” Wood said. “If you have an IBM or a laptop, you can set that up yourself. So, it’s not going to create a block.
“It’s a review of what’s been going on. It’s also an alert system, so a parent is able to monitor and look at things that their child has been viewing on the computer.”
There also is a three-month trial period available so that users can install the program on a cellphone or smartphone, Wood said.
“You have to have a little more cooperation with your son or daughter to know their username or password,” Wood said. “So, it’s a three-month free trial that allows you to monitor phones, as well.”
Sheriff’s officials obtained the software last month using funds seized from illegal activity.
“Taxpayers didn’t have to pay for any of it,” Spoden said. “Our hope is, as we go through these copies and run out, that hopefully some day we could partner with the business community and maybe private funds could be used to purchase more, with as popular as it’s become.”
The sheriff’s office has distributed copies of ComputerCop to local libraries, businesses and organizations for no cost. Spoden said copies also will be distributed during community events.
“We’re going to continue to try to push it out to the public. We’ll have copies available at the Rock County 4-H Fair,” Spoden said. “At the end of the day, we want to arm parents with the ability to keep their kids safe when they’re on the computer and using the Internet.”
Parents may obtain a copy of ComputerCop by stopping by the sheriff’s office. For information about a demonstration of the software, call (608) 757-7919.
“If you have a public establishment where you can get (copies) out, we would be more than delighted to give you additional copies so you can give them to your customers,” Wood said. “There’s no cost, so we think they would be better served in parents’ hands than being in boxes sitting in the sheriff’s office.”
Spoden said he first learned about the ComputerCop program while attending a sheriff’s conference in Washington, D.C., in January.
“I was convinced that it was something we could bring back to Rock County and Wisconsin to put out for the parents and families,” Spoden said. “We felt the price of it was reasonable. It was right around $3 apiece.”
If the software can prevent a child from becoming a victim of an Internet predator, it’s a small price to pay.
“We have a detective that spends 60 percent of his time viewing the Internet,” Spoden said. “We have people who are pedophiles and stalkers and they are trying to lure kids to get them into chat rooms and lure kids into meeting them or encourage them into some kind of sexual behavior that’s totally inappropriate and illegal.”