Within 15 minutes of accepting a Facebook 'friend' request from a supposed female peer, a teenage girl had a shock. A middle aged police officer walked up to her at work and introduced himself as that online peer.
Darren Laur has served with the Victoria police department for 28 years. He is a 'white hatter' who poses as a teenage girl on Facebook under an alias in order to catch predatory 'black hatters' and make a point about internet safety.
He tracked down the teenage girl by 'harvesting' her social networks. Facebook told him her full name, date of birth, type of car, and that she worked at an Athlete's World store in Victoria. A photo of her car gave him the licence plate number. Photos with GPS tags told him where she lived, and Google Maps gave him a satellite image of her house.
Laur drove to an Athlete's World in Victoria and saw her car in the parking lot.
"I found her in 15. Why? Because you're putting way too much information into your social networks that's making it too easy," he said.
In the past few years, Laur has spoken to 120,000 students, including nearly all of Abbotsford's middle and high school students, about internet safety.
Students at Clayburn Middle gave him "rave reviews" on his talk on Monday, according to principal Dexter Horton. Laur spoke to a group of 80 parents at the Arts Council that same night.
Before speaking at a school, Laur 'friends' its students on Facebook as his alias to test how many invite him in without ever meeting him. Within 30 minutes, he can usually get 20 youth inviting the alias as a friend.
"Once I'm in, I have full access," Laur said Monday night. "Once you invite somebody in as a friend or follower, privacy settings mean nothing."
He now has over 4,000 Facebook friends, a list he is constantly cleaning out because Facebook caps friends lists at 5,000.
No matter what one's Facebook privacy settings are, a digital profile is always public.
"Everything you post is public, permanent, and very searchable. The reason that Facebook is free, that Tumblr is free, is because they're taking our information and they're selling it. And we need to understand this fact," said Laur.
Most kids are on three or four social networks. Laur has used these to 'creep' about 100,000 kids in B.C. That is, he has used info from sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to uncover personal information about teenagers.
Laur has used this information, and the student contacts he has developed through talks, to save 58 young people who were considering self-harm because of 'sexting' or cyber bullying gone wrong.
Laur has seen 'sexting' – the exchange of sexual content by text message – between kids as young as Grade 5. Other teenagers – a rare minority, assured Laur – are using online chat rooms and social networks to share graphic photos and video, but don't realize how quickly information can become public.
The result are 'sextortion' cases where a predator uses such media to extort services from the child. British Columbia is fourth in Canada for online predation issues, according to Laur.
Laur emphasizes that social networking is not an evil entity "polluting the minds of youth," but rather the "coolest thing ever invented by humankind" that allows for incredible connections between people. But this requires responsible use.
"Most of our kids are doing uber cool things online, contrary to popular belief that kids are doing really bad stuff online…But a part of that is that we need to educate our kids about some of the realities," said Laur.
The Abbotsford school district is doing everything right to gain control of this issue, said Laur.
"This district, in my opinion, has really embraced this whole issue of digital citizenship and digital literacy, and they're taking some very proactive steps in integrating that into the schools."
It's up to parents to enforce safe online practices at home.
One major quick fix is to keep the smartphones and computers out of the bedroom, because teenagers are on social networks actively between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Another is to learn the language. As "digital citizens," youth have created their own online language that parents – "digital immigrants" – usually don't grasp, explained Laur.
"If we don't know the language, we won't be able to understand what our kids are doing online," he said.
For example, acronyms frequently used in text messages are KPC (Keep Parents Clueless), PAW (Parents Are Watching), and POS (Parents Over the Shoulder).
Laur's talk to parents Monday night has encouraged local mom Anissa Wiebe to do more research in preparation for her eight- and nine-year old children joining social networks in a few years.
"I like to be proactive, so that when we introduce it, we can do it together and it's not going to be this shock factor, 'oh, now you have to take my stuff away,'" she said.
Laur has a wealth of recommended strategies for parents, such as monitoring software, on his site email@example.com twitter.com/alinakonevski