The numbers are startling: nearly one in six sex offenders is using techniques created by identify thieves to change their names, birthdays, Social Security numbers and other identifiers so as to avoid their legally mandated registration requirements.
According to a study conducted by Utica College and funded by the U.S. Justice Department, an estimated 92,000 of the 570,000 registered sex offenders nationwide are using the internet to live freely and undetected while seemingly abiding by “court-imposed or statutory restrictions.”
“These are offenders who are flying under the radar and authorities don’t know it,” Don Rebovich, the Utica professor who directed the study told NBCNews.com. “The authorities really don’t have the resources to keep on checking on these people. Offenders find where the vulnerabilities are in the system and exploit them.”
The greatest fear parents have regarding these “double-life” sex offenders is that these offenders can live where they choose, living without any fear of legal controls or constraints. But Kristin Helm, a spokeswoman for Tennessee’s sex registry, challenged the study’s findings.
“Fingerprints obtained by law enforcement identify individuals regardless of a name or Social Security number,” she explained to NBCNews.com, adding that sometimes name changes occur by marriage and that less than 1 percent of Tennessee’s sex offenders are truants.
And although the physical proximity that offenders may have to schools, parks and other gathering areas for children is a concern, the fact remains that these offenders are using digital means for manipulating their identity – making their access to children online a very real possibility.
“It’s important for parents to interact with their children about their online activities, just as you would talk to them about the friends they’re physically hanging out with,” explains Rey Junco, a professor in the department of Academic Development and Counseling at Lock Haven University. “Be aware of what they’re doing – it’s not necessarily about technology, but about having a good relationship with your child so they’ll be open about what they’re doing online.”
While the chat rooms of the 90s – which infamously hosted sexual predators – may have waned in popularity thanks to social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, Junco reiterates that strangers can continue to find ways to interact with children online.
“According to research, children aren’t necessarily reaching out to strangers on popular social media platforms, but it’s still a good idea for parents to warn their kids about accepting strange friend requests and unusual activity,” says Junco.
“Sure, it’s easy for people to hide – but the authenticity that new online spaces demand makes it easy for parents to caution their children about safety.”