Monday, January 30, 2006

Why the internet can be a bad place to meet people.

Why the internet can be a bad place to meet people.
A murder in Virginia. The Taylor Behl story.

We still do not know how she met her fate.
No one knows for sure how Taylor Marie Behl met her untimely fate. All that's known for sure is that she was last seen leaving her dormitory September 5th - two weeks into her freshman year at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA.

Her badly decomposed body - identifiable only with dental records - was found in a shallow grave in a heavily wooded coastal area 70 miles east of Richmond.

A photograph posted online by one Ben Fawley - who is currently being held in connection with child pornography and illegal firearms charges - was used to identify the area where Taylor Behl's body was discovered.

Ben Fawley was named as a suspect.
Authorities named Ben Fawley as a suspect in the Taylor Behl murder.

Mr. Fawley maintains several websites dedicated to his interests in art, Goth culture and skulls. He was also found to be in possession of child pornography and illegal firearms. One of his online names is Skulz67. Taking a lesson out of Scott Peterson's playbook - Mr. Peterson was convicted of the murder of his wife Laci and their unborn child - Fawley altered his physical appearance. He cut his hair short and dyed it dark brown.

Now that the facts are in the open, it takes only a second to know that Ben Fawley is not the type of individual most of us would choose to associate with. Unfortunately, for those that were unlucky enough to encounter Fawley over the internet, he seemed just like anyone else. This brings me to why I've decided to write about this sad tale: Taylor Behl met Ben Fawley online.

Taylor Behl was an avid blogger and she maintained a detailed diary at LiveJournal.com. Her personal webspace at MySpace.com lists her as having 92 "internet" friends - one of which was Ben Fawley.

Taylor Behl made everything about herself available online.
Taylor Behl provided details on everything about her life online. She wrote about her interests, her complaints and unfortunately, her future plans. A resident of Vienna, Virginia, she wrote about moving to Richmond and beginning her college career there. She met Ben Fawley when he began posting messages on her website. Then both of them began exchanging messages on each other's sites. Taylor Behl then visited with Ben Fawley on one of her preparatory trips to Richmond. Fawley even posted a photo of them, taken together during her visit, on his website.

Exactly what happened between Fawley and Behl from the time she moved to Richmond and began college, until she went missing, is still being unraveled. All that is known for certain at this point is that she was murdered, and that she met Fawley - the man suspected of her murder - on the internet!

The list of tragedies following chat room meetings go on and on.
Make no mistake. The Taylor Behl tragedy is not an isolated occurrence. This type of horror story happens all the time. Here is one recent tragedy:

Terry Graham, Christopher Raynsford, Curt Blackman, Richard Sneath, and Sean Ethan Owen are all individuals who were murdered during the past year. Each of them met their killer in an online chat room at Gay.com.

The list could go on and on. These are just the murders. To this, add the number of rapes, assaults, robberies, fraud and using /abusing people that have happened after chat room meetings - and it becomes obvious that the internet is absolutely the last place you want to use to make friends.

Important things to know about meeting people on the internet.
Here are a few things I know - and you should know - about the internet:

1. The internet is exactly the wrong place to make details about your personal plans available to the public.

2. Predators look for easy and vulnerable prey. They are always scanning.

3. If you make your personal details public, and are willing to form relationships based on contacts you make over the internet - you are vulnerable.

Dangerous places to meet people are in chat rooms and other open forums. It's always a mistake to assume that anyone you meet on the internet is who they say they are, or, that their messages to you are true.

Internet dating services also are not without their problems.
Internet dating services such as Match.com, eHarmony.com, YahooPersonals and others, are another medium that has become an increasingly popular way to meet others. Typically, these dating services take whatever applicants provide them at face value, and perform no background checks. As a result, they are fraught with misinformation. True.com, also an internet dating service, actually screens subscribers. In doing so they find that (there are rejected) and 5% are already married and another 5% have criminal backgrounds (these are also rejected).

Many people who participate in dating services lie about themselves.
According to the authors of the best-selling book Freakanomics, studies indicate that many people who participate in internet dating services lie about themselves. Women typically lie about the things that interest men. This includes their weight (many of them tend to shave an average of 20 pounds), looks (the majority say their looks are above average - this simply cannot be true), and age. Men typically lie about the things that attract women. They tend to exaggerate their income and their height.

Internet dating horror stories.
It also seems that there are also horror stories with online dating services as there are associated with chat rooms. Consider the following:

Robert Friedrich and Alexander Strategos are believed to have been murdered (or poisoned) by the former Melissa Russell, who is now being referred to as the Internet Black Widow from Canada. Russell, who served time for manslaughter in the death of her second husband, Gordon Stewart, met each of her prey (Friedrich and Strategos) through an internet dating service.

41 year old Lori Han was shot to death by a Pittsburgh man, Hardy Lloyd she met through an internet dating service. When police apprehended him, 48 hours after the murder, Hardy Lloyd was riding in a car with another woman whom he had just met on the internet.

Like chat rooms, the list of tragic stories goes on and on. Again, the above list details just some recent murders. If the list included rapes, assaults, robberies and just bad experiences that happened to dating service participants, it would seem endless.

One internet dating service wants background checks to be mandatory.
There is one internet dating service, however, that is trying to buck the trend. It's called true.com and it wants to also require mandatory background checks of those participating in its dating services. Information on a bill that true.com wants the Michigan legislature to pass can be found at this link: http://www.true.com/saferdating/true_safer_faq.asp

The legislation if enacted would do the following:
1. Require disclosure of whether an online dating firm runs criminal background screenings.

2. Requires firms who do conduct criminal background screenings to disclose the limitations of those screenings, and provide safer dating 'tips' to their users.

Why meeting someone over the internet is so dangerous.
So why is it that meeting someone over the internet can be so very dangerous? I think it is because of the following reasons:

1. All of our warning mechanisms stem from having physical contact with an individual. We see how a person looks, hear how they talk, listen to what they say, observe their mannerisms - i.e., we instantly process whether they make eye contact, how quickly they respond when we ask them a question, and a myriad of other things. None of this is available to us when we meet someone on the internet. Instead, all we see are the words they type and what they want us to believe. All this said, it's certainly possible to be deceived by someone in person - in fact it happens all the time. But in person we stand a better chance of determining the character of the person we're meeting.

2. The safety of our neighborhoods and surroundings disappear when we're on the internet. Predators and other treacherous or sick individuals are able to cast a wide net that snares anyone who chooses to make themself available to it.

Many positive relationships result from internet meetings.
All of the above said, there are many positive relationships that have been formed as a result of individuals meeting over the internet. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that it's much easier for someone up to no good to find you over the internet than it is in person. Regardless of how you meet someone, it pays to be careful with who you associate with - this holds particularly true when comes to meeting people on the net.

My recommendations.
So to be safe, here are my recommendations:

1. Never make your personal contact information public over the internet.

2. Never assume that anyone you meet on the internet is who they say they are. (Research has shown that, quite often, chat room attendees who claim they are women are actually men, and visa versa).

3. Be very careful if you decide to physically meet someone you met over the internet. If you are using an online dating service, make it a point to read their recommendations for safe dating and follow them.

Be very careful.

So there you have it. Despite all the good it does, the internet can be a very dangerous place to make new friends. Many individuals have been victimized by those they have met, many have even been murdered. Since the internet is just getting started I suspect the nightmare stories we are now hearing about are just the beginning.

Bob Parsons is 'Go Daddy' founder and president.

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