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Cybersafety: Limit kids' 'friends'

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum came to Miami Country Day School this week with a few questions for the students: Who is on MySpace and Facebook? How many "friends'' did they have through those services? Did anyone have more than 200 friends?

Almost all of the 100 or so middle- and high school students raised their hands.

Not good, McCollum implied, but the state's top law enforcement officer was not conducting an investigation. Rather he was there to teach them about safety online, and that social networking sites are a hot spot for sexual predators.

On the subject of friends, he advised: "If you have 25 or more, you really don't know who ALL of them are.''

McCollum cited the example of "Danny,'' a 23-year-old MySpace user whose profile said he was looking for a girlfriend. In reality, Danny was a 32-year-old registered sex offender in Phoenix.

That was among the many examples he shared over the course of his 45-minute PowerPoint presentation recently at the private school at 601 NE 107th St. He visited the school as part of his office's CyberSafety Education Program, a statewide Internet safety campaign aimed at middle and high school students (www.safeflorida.net/safesurf).

McCollum said more than 77 million children regularly use the Internet. Of children between ages 10 and 17, one out of five will be solicited for sex online, he said.

McCollum threw out some common acronyms used in chats. The screen displayed A/S/L, and McCollum asked what it stands for.

Without hesitation, a student yelled, "age, sex, location.''

He got an equally prompt response when he asked about LMIRL.

"Let's meet in real life,'' came the response.

"The five most dangerous letters in the English language are LMIRL'‚'' McCollum said. "The most dangerous thing you can do is meet someone you don't know.''

McCollum gave examples of young victims of online predators, such as a 14-year-old girl from Virginia who decided to meet a man she had met online. He ended up holding her captive for four days, and forced her to perform "obscene acts.''

Throughout the presentation, McCollum told students to be more careful with their screen names when using online forums -- names like SassySue, Hot4Hoops, or JaxBadby16, "can attract the wrong attention'' from the wrong kinds of people, he said.

He also urged students to be honest if they encounter online predators.

"Tell your parents, teachers, or even a guidance counselor,'' McCollum said.

At the end, McCollum introduced junior Michael Sale. The captain of Miami Country Day's varsity baseball team and senior class president for the upcoming year, Sale has begun his own efforts to raise awareness of Internet safety. Inspired by a visit to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., and a meeting with the U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Sale invited McCollum to Miami Country Day and has also made his own presentations at the school.

"I want to make cyber safety known,'' Sale said.

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