Special Assignment: MySpace

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In a News 12 Special Assignment, we went undercover into a world made easy for online predators.

We logged on to MySpace.com, a website thousands of members strong, to expose the dangers of this popular place.

Posting personal information in a public way...a hot, new tool for long-distance friends....

But as you're about to see, MySpace.com is often a tool for criminals to track down teens.

As a culture, we've come a long way in communication.

Today's teens aren't sitting by a box radio...they're sitting at computers.

And oftentimes, they're sharing private information with the public.

"It's technology," says Investigator Jason Feemster of the Aiken County Sheriff's Department. "Somebody gets wind of it and then everybody wants to do it and be a part of it. So it's usually pretty neat."

Welcome to the world of web cams, downloads, uploads, chat rooms, and blogging.

It's fast, fun and at their fingertips.

Just one click away...at a website called MySpace.com.

Investigator Feemster tells News 12, "MySpace is a social network where it's kind of like billboards, where you can post information about yourself, and leave what they call blogs, which are basically inquiries about yourself where you can communicate back and forth to several people all over the world."

That's right: all over the world.

It's a forum of friends who share everything, from photos to journal entries.

Investigator Feemster specializes in online crime, tracking sexual predators.

He says MySpace.com is like their Internet playground.

News 12 found out just how easy it is to not only navigate the site but to step inside a criminal's mind. Using only the information 16-year old Arann Weatherman provided on her MySpace page, we tracked her down to her own front yard.

This is how we did it.

Arann has listed her age and hometown. She's also posted pictures of her car, a silver Kia with a unique license plate.

Kate Tillotson set out with photojournalist Elgin Traylor to North Augusta High School, where they spotted her car in the parking lot.

They waited five minutes before Arann arrived and led them straight to her home. She had no idea she was being followed.

Her family was surprised to learn how we'd tracked their daughter down.

"It's shocking to know it was that easy for you all to find her. That easy," said Leann Weatherman, Arann's mother.

"You definitely opened my eyes to things I needed to change on there and things I need to be more concerned with," Arann said.

Investigator Feemster was not surprised at Arann's vulnerability.

"Easily probably stalk her with the information she's got on here. She's got her last name on here," he pointed out.

Feemster says there are thousands of teenagers just like Arann, inviting the unknown into their lives.

"They shouldn't be uploading pictures of themselves on the Internet, should not be listing addresses, phone numbers...any of that information's sensitive. I mean, not only are you at risk for an online predator or something to that effect, you're also at risk for identity theft."

As for the Weathermans, previously in the dark about their daughter's website, they say they'll be making some changes.

"We've taught her, raised her to be cautious as to information she gives out on the Internet," Leann said. "You know, I live with the fear of every day something happening to my daughter, and I don't want to make it any easier for somebody to get a hold of her."

It's a reminder that things today aren't as black and white as they once were...and that while Internet safety may be a new concept, it's one that will never grow old.

Since we surprised Arann, she has made changes to her page. She changed her age to fourteen, which automatically sets it to private.

She also deleted some sensitive information like her last name.

However, parents should know once this information is posted, it's there to stay.

Even if Arann closed her account today, her pictures and comments wouldn't just disappear. That's because blogging providers archive everything for possible future use.

We've seen a lot of Internet predator arrests lately. Just last week, 32-year-old Anthony Odom was accused of soliciting a minor on the Internet. Odom is a former Aiken County assistant solicitor.

In April, the Aiken County Internet Predator Task Force netted two arrests. Steven Gunter and Sung Lee pled guilty to soliciting a minor after deputies posed as a 14-year-old girl.

And in Lincoln County, Michael Smith was arrested for allegedly stalking an underage girl online and making harassing phone calls.

Plus, in March, Steve Harrison of Beech Island pled guilty to enticing a minor across state lines for illegal sexual purposes. Investigators say a 13-year-old girl told 30-year-old Harrison she was a 29-year-old advertising executive on MySpace.com. They met and had sex.

Investigators say they are dealing with an increasing number of cases of sexual predators meeting teenagers online.

News 12's Richard Rogers did a story a few months ago about the danger of Internet predators.

He spoke to a couple of Internet security experts at MCG about how to monitor your child's Internet use while still respecting their privacy.

They told News 12 that Internet chat rooms are dangerous places for kids.

"If you walk up on your child and he's on the computer, watch for them switching screens real quick or minimizing the screen...that's real important right there," said James Van Meter, MCG network analyst.

A website called Perverted-Justice.com echoes this possibility for danger by turning the tables against the predators. They help catch pedophiles in the act, and post their pictures for the world to see.