After child predator sex sting, parents beware of kids' computer use

September's well coordinated undercover Internet child sex sting must have sent shivers down the spines of every parent with underage children.

Manatee County sheriff's deputies arrested 43 men in the operation. Working with the state attorney's office to ensure proper and successful prosecutions would result, the sheriff's office spent two months planning the weeklong Operation Green Shepherd.

The suspects ranged in age from 18 to 68 from all walks of life, all charged with using a computer to solicit sex from a minor and traveling to seduce or entice a minor to commit a sexual act. From eight different southwest Florida counties, 16 hail from Manatee and eight from Sarasota.

One is a registered sexual predator who served a little over a decade in prison for sexual battery of a child under 12.

This sting also serves as a warning to other sexual predators in the region. At the Sept. 17 press conference announcing the sting's great success, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube stated: "We want to get the word out there so that, hopefully, predators don't want to come to Manatee."

Manatee follows other counties in the region with sting operations: Sarasota conducted one several months ago and nabbed a similar number of arrests as Manatee.

Polk and Hillsborough also run undercover stings -- Polk on a regular basis, which shows the depths to which predators sink. Not even knowing they could be arrested in a sting stops this abhorrent compulsion for children. Manatee County might want to follow Polk's experience.

Some 40 law enforcement officials worked the sting, with the MSO working with the Bradenton Police Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and county sheriff's offices from Sarasota, Polk, Lee and Lake. Kudos to all for this cooperative, successful operation.

All of the suspects in Manatee's sting thought they were meeting someone age 14 or younger.

What's even more deeply disturbing -- indeed, frightening -- is that this operation made contact with hundreds of potential suspects.

Plus, Stetson University law professor Charles Rose, who researches crimes against children, told Herald reporter Elizabeth Johnson that underage solicitation by pedophiles is a "constant potential threat."

Parents, beware. A child's online time should be monitored closely, under the "trust but verify" concept. Keep computers within a parent's eyesight, too, and out of children's bedrooms. Manatee authorities advise parents to use a computer program called "Computer Cop" as one safeguard against child predators. That's a wise recommendation.

But the challenge runs much deeper with children carrying smartphones and tablets everywhere. Parents should be counseling their children about protecting their privacy and avoiding sexual solicitations. Teach youngsters about online self-defense.

In a related matter, the Federal Trade Commission is currently working on tighter regulations over website data-collecting practices in order to better protect the Internet activities of children.

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 has not kept pace with the swift advances in data mining technology, and in come cases this puts children at risk.

The new rules should be out in a few weeks, no doubt to a debate in the online world.

Read our coverage of the Manatee County sting at www.bradenton.com/crime