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Dangers to kids all too real in virtual world

For Ken Prillaman, allowing children to go online before they're educated about Internet safety is not much different than handing car keys to a 12-year-old.

But just how dangerous the Internet can be only became apparent to the Brooklyn Park, Minn., fire chief after one of his daughters was targeted -- not once, but twice -- by online predators.

"For the first time, we had a threat we didn't know how to protect her from," Ken said.

Ken and his wife, Deb, will share their story and speak about keeping children safe online at Twin Bluff Middle School Thursday evening. Their goal is to educate parents about how teens and young adults think, how predators target and manipulate children and how the Internet is a perfect tool for child predators.

"Parents still don't understand what it is they're giving their children access to," Ken said.

Before his daughter was targeted, Ken admitted that he and his wife didn't know much about social media. But in 2006, the couple discovered their daughter Chelsey's online profile.

"We were blown away," Ken said.

Though just 13 years old, Chelsey was representing herself as a 17-year-old online. And, according to her MySpace, she wasn't the typical, sweet girl her parents knew.

"She was using harsh language, had a tough girl attitude. Kind of a gangster wannabe," Ken said. "We thought, 'Who is this girl?'"

As they continued looking around their daughter's online profile, another thing stood out to them. Chelsey had more than 570 "friends."

"We knew that she couldn't know all these people," Ken said.

But the most disturbing part for Ken and Deb was a chat conversation that Chelsey had with someone named James.

"It was very clear -- and would be to any adult -- that this was not another young person," Ken said.

They learned over the next few weeks and months that the "boy" on the other end of Chelsey's chat conversation was using predatory techniques called mirroring and modeling.

"He got Chelsea to believe that they had a number of things in common," Ken said. "To a young person who is primarily driven by their emotional side, all they're thinking is, 'Oh my gosh, I have found someone that likes the same stuff I like.'"

The Prillamans quickly made Chelsey delete her MySpace page and restricted her Internet use.

But Chelsey didn't stay offline for long. Within 10 days, she had set up a new MySpace profile and had accrued more than 150 friends. Ken and Deb quickly made her delete that profile as well.

Just three days after they discovered their daughter's second online profile, they got a call from the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force.

Apparently, Chelsey had been talking to a man online who had a previous sexual conduct conviction and who was prohibited from speaking with girls under the age of 15. What's more, Chelsey and the man may have even met in person, the task force told Ken and Deb.

"We're in shock," Ken said.

Over the next few weeks and months, Deb and Ken devoted "hundreds of hours" to educating themselves. One of the most important things parents can impress upon their children, Ken said, is to only interact online with people they know in person.

"I can pretend to be a 14-year-old boy online, but I can't do that face-to-face," he said.

He also wants to make sure that parents understand the importance of educating their children on Internet safety.

"We all have to stop presuming that it's just going to happen in some other community to some other family," he said.

If you go...

What: Internet safety with Ken and Deb Prillaman

When: 7:30 p.m. March 7

Where: Twin Bluff Middle School Auditorium

More information:

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.