as safe as anywhere, CEO says

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The popular Web hangout is as safe as anyplace in the offline world despite recent reports that sexual predators may be using it to find and lure young victims, the company’s CEO said.

“If you go to the mall and start talking to strange people, bad things can happen,” Chris DeWolfe, the site’s co-founder, said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got to take the same precautions on the Internet.”

MySpace, a division of News Corp., offers a free way for users to meet any of more than 60 million members. Searching by hometown, alma mater or interest, people can make new friends, reconnect with old ones and interact in other ways.

But in the past month, authorities nationwide have expressed concern that the searching options that make the site popular also put children at risk for abuse.

Last week, two men were arrested in what prosecutors said were the first federal sex charges involving MySpace. Both met the girls through their profiles, the FBI said.

In one case, prosecutors said Sonny Szeto, 22, traveled from Jersey City, N.J., to Connecticut in October and molested an 11-year-old girl in her playroom while her parents slept upstairs, according to an FBI affidavit. In the other case, Stephen Letavec, 39, was charged with molesting a 14-year-old visiting from Elrama, Pa., in October.

A Middletown officer called it “a predator’s dream come true.” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said it was a “parent’s worst nightmare.” And U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor said he would have serious reservations about letting his own children use the site.

DeWolfe said MySpace gets a lot of attention because it has so many members, but he said the site simply offers a collection of tools already widely used online: personalized home pages, instant messaging, e-mail, Web logging and video sharing.

People who put themselves at risk on MySpace, DeWolfe said, would be doing so elsewhere.

“This isn’t a MySpace issue,” he said. “It’s an Internet issue.”

Parents are accustomed to teaching their children how to stay safe and DeWolfe said that needs to extend to the Internet. He said MySpace offers a list of safety recommendations.

“Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want the world to know. On the Internet, people aren’t always who they say they are,” he said. “If you keep some of those safety tips in mind, the Internet can be a pretty safe place.”

Children younger than 14 aren’t allowed on MySpace and 14-year-olds are allowed only restricted access. DeWolfe said the site uses a computer program that analyzes user profiles and flags members likely to be under 14. More than 200,000 users have been deleted, he said.

But children regularly lie about their age to get around restrictions.

DeWolfe said company officials have assisted on more than 2,400 investigations, from criminal cases to runaways, and make themselves available to investigators around the clock.

“We think MySpace is a great place for all users over 14,” he said.

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