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Online solicitation a growing problem among teens

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New research shows that the internet can be particularly dangerous for teenage girls. Austin police say that most parents never even realize that their child has become a target to online predators until it is too late.

Beverly Villela is 20 years old now, but when she was 15 she was the target of an online predator.

"He looked kind of older, like in his 20's," said UT student Villela. "He was just saying that my pictures were really pretty."

While Villela did not meet with the man face-to-face, new research shows that 30 percent of girls do meet face-to-face with a stranger who approached them online. In a more dangerous world, the internet is a prime spot for child predators.

"I think they should be arrested," said Villela in an interview.

Many online predators are arrested, but according to Detective Joel Pridgeon with APD, online criminals can be hard to find.

"I get a fresh case several times a week now," said Detective Pridgeon.

He gets so many new cases in fact; it's his one and only assignment with the department to track down online criminals targeting children. Most criminals don't fit a certain profile making his job harder.

"We've been engaged investigating people from the low end of socioeconomic status all the way up to 6-7 figure annual income. All races, both genders, different kinds of jobs, everything…you name it.

If you think it's only a problem here in Austin, think again.

Since 2003 investigators at the Attorney General's Office have arrested 139 men state-wide for allegedly soliciting what they thought was a minor online for sex. The supposed minor turned out to be investigators at the Attorney General's Office working under cover.

One of the most recent arrests was Jason Michael Walker out of Williamson County. According to investigators Walker solicited what he thought was a 15-year-old girl for oral sex. It ended up being one of the investigators here at the Attorney General's Office and that's why Detective Pridgeon says this is a growing problem and parents need to pay closer attention to what their child is doing online.

"Constant monitoring," said Detective Pridgeon. "Every email, every chat message, all of that has to be monitored, has to be read."

Pridgeon says more often than not parents have no idea their child is a target until it's too late.

"In a lot of our cases physical contact does indeed take place," said Pridgeon.

One of the main problems is in today's society, more teens are willing to meet up with strangers they met from the internet.

"Guys see us girls when we're younger as more naive, we don't really know what's going on," said UT student Villela. "So they think that we are going to let anything happen."

Most of the time the child already knows the predator either from school or is a close family friend. Police say that if you discover someone is sending inappropriate messages to your child, do not respond or write directly to the predator. Rather parents should call 911 immediately.

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