Following Tuesday's arrest of a California man for allegedly exchanging sexually explicit photographs with a 13-year-old South Brunswick girl, police are urging parents to diligently monitor their children's online activities.
According to police, Ballantyne met the South Brunswick teen in an online chat room, where the two exchanged contact information. Ballantyne allegedly sent nude photographs of himself to the 13-year-old and he also received partially nude, sexually suggestive photographs of the victim, according to police.
The investigation began after the teen's mother observed sexually explicit images on her daughter’s cell phone and contacted authorities. South Brunswick Police Det. Ronald Seaman, who is also a member of the FBI’s New Jersey Cybercrimes Task Force, was able to identify Ballantyne as the suspect.
"The same advances in computer and telecommunication technology that allow our children to reach out to new sources of knowledge and cultural experiences are also leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and harm by computer sex offenders," Det. Seaman said. "It is important for parents to proactively minimize the chances of their child becoming a victim of an online predator."
Through his work with the FBI, Det. Seaman said it's vital for parents to identify signs that their child might be at risk online.
Parents are advised to be aware of the following warning signs:
- Your child spends large amounts of time online, especially at night.
Most children that fall victim to computer sex offenders often spend a large amount of time online, particularly in chat rooms, according to the FBI. Parents are advised monitor the amount of time their kids spend online. Children are at the greatest risk when they are online during the evening. According to the FBI, most offenders work during the day and spend their evenings online trying to locate and lure children or to seek pornography.
- You find pornography on your child's computer.
Pornography is frequently used in the sexual victimization of children by sex offenders, authorities said. The predators will often supply their potential victims with pornography as a way to open discussions about sex. Parents should be cognizant of the fact that their child may conceal pornographic files on computer disks in an attempt to hide it from them.
- Your child receives phone calls from men you don't know or is making calls, sometimes long distance, to numbers you don't recognize.
Most offenders want to talk to the children on the telephone, the FBI said. They will often engage in "phone sex" with the children and frequently seek to set up an actual meeting for real sex.
In the case of the California man and the South Brunswick teen, Ballantyne was allegedly "very demanding during phone conversations with the minor victim and persuaded the victim to engage in sexual activity while they conversed," police said. Ballantyne allegedly blocked his phone number on multiple occasions while he called the victim and made continual requests that the victim delete the pictures, text messages and e-mails he sent her.
- Your child receives mail, gifts, or packages from someone you don't know.
The FBI said that it's common for offenders to send letters, photographs, and gifts to their potential victims. Online sex offenders have also sent plane tickets for their target to travel across the country to meet them, according to the FBI.
- Your child becomes withdrawn from the family.
Online sex offenders work very hard at driving a wedge between a child and their family in an attempt to exploit their relationship, the FBI said. Predators will focus on any minor problems at home that the child might have. Children may also become withdrawn after they have been victimized.
- Your child is using an online account belonging to someone else.
Online sex offenders sometimes provide potential victims with a computer account in order to facilitate communications with them.
Should any of these warning signs arise, parents are urged to talk openly with their children about any suspicions and to educate them about the dangers of computer sex offenders.
Parents should also review what is on their child's computer, or ask a person with computer knowledge for help if you're not computer literate. To monitor phone calls, parents should use a caller ID service to determine who is calling their child. Devices can also be purchased that show telephone numbers that have been dialed from any home phone.
Police advise parents to talk to their children about sexual victimization and potential dangers that exist online, and to spend time online with their kids to learn about their favorite web sites.
Parents should also utilize parental controls provided by internet service providers and should closely monitor their children’s use of chat rooms. Despite the effectiveness of some parental blocks, parents should not completely rely on them to protect their children.
Police also advise parents to understand that even if a child was a willing participant in any form of sexual exploitation, the child is not at fault and is the victim.
"The offender always bears the complete responsibility for his or her actions," the FBI said.
Should a parent have concerns about any such suspicious online or phone activity involving their children, they should immediately contact their local or state law enforcement agency, the FBI, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Parents need to educate their children about potential on-line dangers, identify the signs that their children might be at risk online, and report suspicious activity to the police department," Det. Seaman said.
Click here to view the full FBI Parents Guide to Internet Safety for more tips and warning signs.