Monday, August 27, 2007
By Daniel Vasquez
I could hardly believe my eyes or cell-phone screen: The registered sex offender living closest to my home, to my family, was staring back at me.
The man in the full-color police mug shot — with silver-colored hair and mustache, collared shirt and dark tie — was convicted of sexual crimes against a Florida child younger than 16. My cell phone also clued me into the home addresses of 42 other offenders living within a five-mile radius of my house.
That's big help for parents hoping to steer a child away from the homes of Florida's 45,000 registered predators. Nationally, there are 550,000 registered sex offenders.
Launched earlier this month by Sprint, FamilyWatchdog.us is a free safety service available in English and Spanish to anyone with a Web-enabled cell phone or computer. Sprint is the only carrier that offers a FamilyWatchdog.us link on the cell phone's home page.
The technology that powers FamilyWatchdog joins a fast-growing cadre of family-friendly tech gadgets and services that allow parents to construct virtual cocoons around their children. With the market brimming with increasingly affordable products, such technologies should be a part of every parent's back-to-school plan.
Parents can use computers and cell phones — coupled with the latest Web and GPS technologies — to track a child's whereabouts 24 hours a day. In the worst-case scenario, parents can use the same gadgets and mapping features to send police, an ambulance or other help to the exact location of a child in an emergency.
The children's GPS Phone Locator by Wherify (called a Wherifone) is small enough to fit in the palm of a small hand and uses the Global Positioning System to let parents find their child at any time. Starting at $60 with a two-year plan, these phones come with various safety features, including an oversized "SOS" button that dials 911 automatically. They also provide a geographic location of the cell phone and child to parents.
The phone lets parents control who a child calls because it can store and dial no more than 23 numbers. The three most important numbers, like home or a parent's cell, can be speed-dialed from one-touch buttons.
Wherify's phone also lets parents monitor via computer or by phone where the phone has traveled, so you can check where your child hangs out. Service costs $20 to $47 a month. For more information, visit www.wherify.com.
Sprint and Verizon also sell GPS phones that can be used to locate someone. Verizon's Chaperone service has a couple of cool features for parents, even if teens might not like them.
One allows parents to track the speed of a car through a cell phone. Another can detect when a cell phone goes outside a pre-set geographic area and sends an alert to parents via computer or cell phone. In other words, you can make sure your child is at a local dance and not on his or her way to Vegas.
Sprint's Family Locator allows parents to set "safety checks" to make sure their kids arrive at school or appointments on time.
Check with your phone plan to see if these services cost extra or are included. And remember, these technologies only work if a child is carrying the cell phone.
Speaking about setting boundaries, it was amazing what I learned from my cell phone and FamilyWatchdog.us, which taps into state databases of registered sex offenders across the nation and meshes the information with Google Maps.
"We update our data no less than every 24 hours," says company founder Steve Roddell, FamilyWatchdog's sole shareholder. He started the service on the Internet in the wake of several high-profile child abductions and murders, including that of Floridian Jessica Lunsford, who was sexually assaulted and buried alive in 2005.
"Some police jurisdictions, including the sheriff's office in Marion County, actually provide us with the information directly," Roddell said.
I was able to call up a photo of my sex offender neighbor, as well as his exact address, conviction history and physical description (including weight, height, eye and hair color, and scars or tattoos if any). I could even view his home's location in relation to mine with the map feature.
I also learned that 42 other sexual offenders live within a five-mile radius of my home, according to FamilyWatchdog, three of whom live within a mile. Their rap sheets are scary. Internet sexual solicitation of a minor. Sexual battery. Rape.
Basically, the service can help guide parents and children away from any area where a red dot appears on your cell phone map. And many of the mug shots are so clear, you might even recognize the offender if he or she crossed your family's path.
Yes, similar information is available to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. Check out www.doj.gov, www.myfloridalegal.com or www.fdle.state.fl.us. The tech breakthrough here is that this information can be accessed by parents without being tethered to a computer.
Using a cell phone, they can type in an exact street address, a street, or ZIP code and check their own neighborhoods or anywhere while out of town on business or vacation, or even while visiting friends and relatives, to check the surrounding area for known sex predators.
None of these technologies will guarantee a child's safety. But they certainly give an edge to parents who don't take anything for granted.
Copyright 2007 Sun-Sentinel.com