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Use of social media by sexual predators adds to the difficulty of keeping children safe

In today’s fast-evolving technological age parents need more than a rudimentary knowledge of the Internet and social media.

A disturbing article by News staff reporters Jane Kwiatkowski Radlich and Phil Fairbanks demonstrates why it is important to get up to speed. They wrote about a man, Robert Pritchett, who hid behind aliases such as Jason and Jess when searching for underage girls, according to federal agents. He allegedly found them, thanks to social media.

What happened next is any parent’s nightmare. The FBI says the 20-year-old would connect with underage girls, usually through meetme.com, Kik or another video chat and messaging site popular with teens. The FBI believes the Buffalo man managed to persuade girls to send him nude photos of themselves. The authorities say he forced other girls into prostitution.

“Sextortion” is the word used by Jeremy Bell and his colleagues. Bell is supervisory special agent of the FBI’s Child Exploitation Task Force in Buffalo.

Pritchett was arrested earlier this month on child pornography and sex trafficking charges. Bell said these predators groom their prey, getting compromising photos and then using them to blackmail their victims. In their hands, he said, a smartphone “can be as dangerous as a gun.”

Authorities say Pritchett continued to prey on young girls, despite Erie County prosecutors making a case against him in July 2014, according to court papers. A federal judge last week asked why it took more than 18 months to get him off the streets. Good question.

Pritchett was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl, yet made bail and remained free until his arrest this month on separate federal charges. During his “free” time he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl from New Jersey, according to agents. He also is charged with forcing the girl into prostitution.

Another appalling case of a social media predator made national news when Nicole Lovell, 13, of Virginia, was kidnapped and killed, allegedly by an 18-year-old college student she met on Kik. She referred to him as her “boyfriend” when talking to a neighbor.

Her father, on a segment with TV’s Dr. Phil, choked back tears as he spoke about his daughter’s social media use. He said he was going public to issue a warning to other parents.

U.S. Attorney William Hochul talked about the Pritchett case to News reporters. He called what is happening around these social media sites a near “perfect storm.” He compared cases here – two other Western New York men were arrested this month on child pornography charges similar to the ones against Pritchett – to what is happening nationwide.

In a letter to The News, Hochul wrote: “Most parents seriously underestimate the frequency with which their children are exposed to sexually explicit texts and photographs.” He urged parents to “take full advantage of parental controls to monitor usage, media activity and who their child is contacting.” And learn the tricks used to conceal activity.

Raising children – boys and girls – in a time of fast-evolving technology demands that parents and guardians keep pace. It can be a matter of life and death.