ONE day last year, "Shawn", 15, posted on his Facebook page that his parents were not giving him enough pocket money. Soon after, a man in his 40s saw the posting and befriended him.
After many conversations over a few months, he made the teen an offer he could not refuse: A chance to earn a few hundred dollars for each "assignment" he took on. Shawn accepted the offer. He became a loan-shark runner.
Like Shawn, figures show that more youth are being exploited by strangers who befriend them on social networking and games-related websites.
Counsellors who work with the young have flagged this as a key concern because they say many young people are falling prey to sex, extortion and other forms of cyber-scams.
Mr Chong Ee Jay, assistant manager of Touch Cyber Wellness, said online predators are getting more creative in exploiting the young and vulnerable, such as recruiting them as loan-shark, DVD or drug runners. Touch is one of the main groups here that educate students and parents on cyber safety.
But strangers befriending victims so that they can get sexually intimate with them is still the main danger. According to the police, 15 of the 17 people who were raped by a cyberspace "friend" last year were between seven and 19 years old. This is an increase from 2009, when three-quarters, or nine of the 12 victims, were youth.
Over the past three years, at least half of the nine to 16 molestation cases reported each year involved victims who were youth.
Counsellors say these cases are just the tip of the iceberg because many victims feel too intimidated or ashamed to make a police report.
Mr Chong sees about 10 online scam cases at each school that he goes to, double the number of such incidents two years ago. "From the straw polls we have done with the classes, we found that the children have on average 20 strangers on their Facebook," he said.
This is worrying, he added, because sexual predators tend to befriend victims through popular social networking and games-related websites, and then try to meet their intended victims to sexually exploit them.
Others befriend the victims and work to gain their trust before attempting to extort money from them. They do this by threatening to post photographs or videos of the victims online, following recorded sessions of victims appearing nude or performing sex acts over webcams.
More than 50 such cases involving foreign women were reported last year, almost a fivefold increase from the 11 cases the year before.There is no breakdown of how many of these male victims were youths, but they are typically students, full-time national servicemen or working adults.
While the sexual initiation or grooming usually involves the opposite sex, Mrs Rachel Lee, assistant director of the Fei Yue Family Service Centres, said she has also come across cases where older men try to befriend younger boys for sexual purposes.
She also saw about 10 cyber-scam cases last year, an increase from the two to three cases two years ago.
Mr Chong said cyberspace is fertile ground for online predators because they are privy to the deluge of personal information shared unwittingly by the young.
Like the case of Shawn, the predators use the personal information to build trust and rapport with their victims. After his school counsellor found out that he was working as a loan-shark runner, the teen had to deactivate his Facebook account to cut all ties with the stranger.
Social workers say children and teens, often naive, trusting and looking for friendships online, are especially vulnerable to being exploited sexually or financially. "Teens, especially those without enough supervision or communication at home, find the attention or affection online," said Mr Vincent Ng, executive director of the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centres.
"Research shows that their brain development at this phase predisposes them to recklessness, and any possible danger is overlooked when the thrill or excitement of meeting someone new kicks in."
Child psychologist Carol Balhetchet of the Singapore Children's Society said some have a false sense of security and feel they are in control because they are either behind a computer screen or in a public place when they meet strangers they befriend online.
Dr Balhetchet sits on the Media Literacy Council, which works with various groups to inculcate good online practices.
She said: "They think they can outsmart and outrun the perpetrators, but situations can easily go out of hand as they may not have the maturity to handle them well."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 10, 2013
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