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Expert warns parents about 'selfies' and security online

Published 12:32 pm, Wednesday, October 2, 2013
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Katie Koestner spoke quickly and did not pause or misplace a word.

She spoke to more than 150 parents seated in the main room of the Waveny House for New Canaan CARES' "Cyber Security and Digital Footprint: Skillfully Parenting the Cyber Generation," with horror stories of illicit pictures, revoked scholarships and utter permanence of digital information Tuesday evening.

"Everything is time and geo-location stamped," Koestner, the board president of Take Back the Night, a national sexual violence advocacy organization, said. "There are not many issues bigger than this. Technology permeates everything."

Koestner rose to fame in the early 1990s, when she went national with her story of being raped as a freshman at the College of William and Mary. She appeared on the cover of Time magazine and sold the rights to her story to HBO, which made the 1993 docudrama "No Visible Bruises: The Katie Koestner Story."

Since then, she has appeared on more than 50 national television programs and 1,700 college and high school campuses telling her story.

At the Waveny House, she advised parents to impart to their children the gravity of information placed online.

"Lessons learned for parents: It's tempting to believe in the goodness of others. It doesn't matter how smart you are, people do bad things all the time, so precautionary measures are a must in this day and age," Koestner said.

She recalled one story where a child invited over to a friend's house for a sleepover woke up in the middle of the night and took videos of where everything in the house was located. The family went on vacation shortly thereafter and the house was cleaned out by robbers, aided by the girl's video, when they arrived home.

"If you're in Aruba, people can know your house is empty because of your 12-year-old's social media posts."

Parents listened with rapt attention, many of them taking notes.

"I thought it was fascinating. She's probably only touched the surface," Suzy Turner, a parent of two, said. "I came to be informed and to learn about the best ways to protect my family. What surprised me was how accessible everything is and how fast it can spread."

New Canaan CARES brought Koester to speak after feedback from residents indicated parents were concerned about online issues.

"The community was demanding this, so we went out and got the foremost speaker in the country," Doreen Conley, the president of New Canaan CARES, said after the event. She was discussing the presentation with a group of people after it ended.

"We were just speaking about letting our kids know their risk and liability in pressing send and sharing photos," she said.

Koestner's overall guidance to parents was that they should talk with their kids. But she also recommended several apps parents could look into if they wanted, including one that would make their children's phones inoperable after a certain time, like at midnight, or one with which a parent could receive all photos and videos the child sent and received, and even software that would enable the parent to listen in on the child's conversations at any time.

Koestner told a story of a 16-year-old boy from a wealthy family outside Philadelphia who started video chatting with a pretty European girl on the Internet. After 45 minutes, she said, the girl asked the boy to do sexual things on camera for her, which he did. The girl was actually part of a criminal gang, which put the video up on YouTube.

"During dinner, the father gets a message: `Pay up.' They say the link will come down as soon as the money is transferred into the bank account," Koesnter recalled. "If kids think a hot blonde in Europe is real and talking to them, you have not done enough homework with your family."

twoods@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @Woods_NCNews