February 13, 2011

Lawmakers Seek To Prohibit Online Sex Offender Aliases

Vermont lawmakers are considering making it a crime for convicted sex offenders to use false names on social media sites like Facebook.

Erik Fitzpatrick, a lawyer on the research staff for the Vermont Legislature, said that only two states have related measures: New York and Illinois.  The National Conference of State Legislatures was unaware of similar laws or pending legislating in other states.

A former teacher at a school for boys who had committed sex crimes told a state Senate committee Friday that he spotted a Facebook profile last fall with a picture of a former student in the program who was using an alias.

Chuck Laramie, the former teacher, told The Associated Press (AP) that the 26-year-old man had become Facebook friends with 14- and 15-year-old girls.

The state's online sex offender registry shows that the man convicted in 2004 of sexual assault, defined in Vermont law as engaging in a sex act with another person without that person's consent, and has not completed a sex offender treatment program.

Laramie said he saw Facebook messages the man sent the girls, which said he was "struggling with his sexuality and thinking he might be gay. Some of the girls were replying by saying, 'Oh, no, you're not.' He was getting these young girls to feel sympathy for him." 

He said "It was a classic grooming situation" in which sexual predators psychologically manipulate potential victims.

Laramie told AP that if the man were a sex offender trying not to re-offend, that was "an extremely high-risk situation to put yourself in."

Facebook said in a statement that it takes extensive steps when it detects people on its network behaving suspiciously.  

The statement said that contacting minors or users of predominantly one gender are seen as clues, and Facebook uses systems including a national database of convicted sex offenders to do real-time checks.

"Protecting our users, especially the many children who use Facebook, has always been a top priority for us. We've devoted significant resources to developing innovative and complex systems to proactively monitor the site and its users," the company said according to AP's Dave Gram.

Some state senators questioned whether Vermont could ban sex offenders from computers altogether.

Senator Jeanetta White, a Windham Democrat, said that many public services, like applying for extended unemployment benefits, require using computers.

The bill under review would make the crime a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years in jail.  The committee said it would continue to consider the bill.


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