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Conor Phoenix spends his days pretending to be someone else for a living.
In the cyber world of the Internet, Phoenix, an FBI agent who works on a New Haven Computer Crimes Task Unit, routinely passes himself off as a 13-or 14-year-old girl, posting on different sites and within chat rooms searching for a certain type of criminal; one that preys on younger children looking to make a connection online.
“I deal everyday with a segment of society that is difficult to comprehend, even with so much attention being paid to these issues,” said Phoenix. “The images that we see on a daily basis are disturbing, but the knowledge that we are helping a child in the country makes for very rewarding work.”
On Thursday, Nov. 12, Phoenix came to Cheshire Academy to speak with middle school students about the dangers of living in a new, technologically advanced society and how to keep oneself safe from adult predators who use the computer as their hunting grounds.
During his more than hour-long presentation, Phoenix touched on a variety of issues, including the dangers of social networking sites and recognizing warning signs when communicating with individuals online.
The biggest issue Phoenix routinely finds when talking to schools is breaking through the younger generation’s belief that, while such issues might arise with others, they would never allow themselves to fall into a dangerous predicament.
“There is definitely a sense that this could never happen to them and also a sense that they are invincible,” said Phoenix. “That is certainly a factor. Whether this (presentation) is something that breaks through is not something we are ever going to know for sure, but if it saves one child’s life, it was worth it.”
Cheryl Costello, a history teacher at the middle school, believed that Phoenix’s message “got through” to the students she spoke with after the presentation, because, she said, the FBI agent provided a credible messenger.
“This is what he does all day, every day, as his job,” said Costello. “I think that really hit home for them.”
While Costello agreed with Phoenix’s assessment that middle school students are somewhat insulated from the realities of such dangers, commenting that many believe they are “too smart” to let something happen, the presentation, she commented, broke through that wall.
“We had a really good discussion afterwards,” she remarked. “I believe this is something that will stay with them.”
Predators who “troll” different sites looking for unsuspecting youngsters come from diverse backgrounds and regions of the country. While some teenagers might imagine a child predator as a gruff and somewhat ominous looking individual, Phoenix warned that many look “like your teachers, your parents, or other adults in your life.”
“I have arrested people who come to meet, what they believe to be, 13-year-old girls in a suit and tie,” Phoenix recounted.
To hammer home the potential pitfalls of conversing and ultimately agreeing to meet individuals met online, Phoenix related several different stories, including one of a girl from Danbury who made it a habit to form relationships online and then meet those individuals.
“Eventually, she met the wrong one, and he kidnapped her and killed her,” he explained.
Phoenix also spoke about how his task force at one time lured a child predator to a fast food establishment with the promise of meeting an underage girl. Phoenix had posed as a teenager online and agreed to meet the man at a specific location.
While the man had promised that he simply wanted to visit with the girl, officers later found out that the man had driven all the way from New Hampshire down to Connecticut with the specific intent of kidnapping the girl, bringing her back to New Hampshire, and then tying her up with no thought of letting her go.
“These people spend all of their waking time trying to get you to trust them,” he stated. “You never know who that person really is. I go online and I pretend to be a 13-year-old girl and they are pretending right back that they are 16 or 17.”
Another area of concern are social-networking sites, Phoenix insisted. Such Web sites as Myspace.com or Facebook.com have become extremely popular among all age groups, providing a forum for individuals to communicate with friends and provide personal information.
Predators, who glean important information about potential targets off them, use such sites regularly. As an example, Phoenix spoke about how, before giving a presentation to a group in Connecticut about Internet safety, he decided to quickly conduct an experiment at home the night before. Logging on to one of the networking sites, Phoenix chose, at random, the profile of a high school student. While the student’s profile only listed some very basic information, Phoenix, in a matter of minutes, was able to find the young girl’s full name, where she lived, which high school she attended, and her potential home address and phone number.
“I was able to do this in 10 or 15 minutes lying on my floor at home, distracted,” said Phoenix. “The people who want to meet you dedicate every waking hour to doing this.”
Cyber bullying was also a topic of conversation during the presentation, something Phoenix admitted he is asked to address constantly after the most recent case of a teenage girl who killed herself, after being harassed online by the mother of a classmate. The mother had pretended to be a 14-year-old classmate.
Such cases are not all that uncommon, Phoenix admitted, telling the students that other cases have involved teenagers committing suicide because of cyber bullying and several of the perpetrators have ended up being arrested.
“These things are treated very seriously,” Phoenix commented. “It might not be the FBI showing up at your door, but it could be your local police.”
The job of tracking down child predators can be difficult and tiring, Phoenix admitted, but knowing that his job makes a difference and keeps children safe is “what gives me the ability to push through the other things.”