“Our team also frequents a large number of social networking sites, games and apps, portraying ourselves as an underage teen,” said Harris. “Our goal is to catch these adult predators before they can get to an actual child.”
The other function of the CHEEZO unit is undercover investigations. Since the onset of the program, Harris and his team have arrested almost 500 online predators.
“From a very young age, youth become active online. Over time, their presence increases, often daily and for many hours,” said First Judicial District Attorney Pete Weir, Jefferson County. “It is incumbent upon us to help protect them from predators they may encounter on the internet.”
This year, the Verizon Wireless Foundation has teamed up with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office to support the work of the CHEEZO program.
“We know youth today are ‘digital natives,’ and the CHEEZO program is a powerful tool to educate both children and parents about the dangers and pitfalls that can exist online,” said Chris Lewter, regional president for Verizon Wireless. “We are proud to support a program that is making such a lasting impact in the communities where our employees live and work.”
Opportunities for danger increase as tweens and teens spend more time online with smart phones and tablets. Even though 74 percent of teens rely on their parents and other adults for information about protecting themselves online, many adults aren’t versed enough in the issue to provide that level of help.
“Seeing our presentation that shows real-life suspects being arrested and the story behind these scenarios helps bring the whole issue to light for both parents and kids,” said Pacheco.
If you are looking for ways to stay safe online, CHEEZO says:
- If you’ve never met someone in person, don’t talk to them online!
- Never give out your personal information, such as your name, address, phone number or the name of your school.
- Never agree to meet someone in person who you’ve only met online.
- If someone you don’t know sends you an email, a picture that makes you uncomfortable or asks you to send them something, tell your mom, dad or another trusted adult. You haven’t done anything wrong!
“Most children don’t think of these things on their own, so sometimes hearing it from a ‘cool cat’ or an investigator may be just what they need to listen and stay safe online,” said Pacheco.
When online, only talk to people who you’ve already met face-to-face. This may seem like a simple piece of advice, but it is one that many tweens, teens and parents do not take to heart. One Colorado program is using this mantra as part of a crucial technology safety program designed to bring key online safety education to both parents and children.
“Most parents don’t think to tell their children not to talk to someone online who they’ve never met face-to-face,” said Tara Pacheco, a paralegal with the Child Sex Offender Internet Investigation (CHEEZO) program. “They do not realize that with location services turned on, they can be located by pictures, posts, etc.”
Since 1996, the CHEEZO program has operated as part of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office in Colorado. The unit is run by Senior Investigator Mike Harris who says that the program has two parts: presentations and online investigations. Among its components, Harris feels education is the most important part of the program — teaching kids and parents how to stay safe online.
“Today’s youth are everywhere in technology, and so are sexual predators,” said Harris.
Harris spends most of his year traveling to elementary, junior high and senior high schools throughout Jefferson County, often accompanied by a five-foot-tall yellow cat named CHEEZO. This cool mascot helps the team provide key education on internet and cell phone safety to students and teachers. Over the last five years, Harris has presented to thousands of kids about the dangers of online sexual predators.