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Real Hope or False Promises

Child-Tracking Devices

Don’t be fooled by the claims of companies that market products to protect children against kidnapping. At best, the products are potential aids to good parenting. Manufacturers simply are cashing in on the hype that surrounds the fear of abduction.

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Marc Klaas began living a public nightmare when his 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped at knifepoint from a slumber party in October 1993. The search for her took 2 months, and she later was found dead—murdered by her abductor. Even after the story fell out of the headlines, Klaas campaigned to stop crimes against children through his KlaasKids Foundation.

You might think that Klaas would be all for any device that is promoted to help protect your child from suffering the same fate—even products that cost hundreds of dollars. You would be wrong. Klaas is skeptical of the growing marketplace for these products.

“As one whose child has been exploited by people, I’m very sensitive to the idea that these various ‘amber-applications’ . . .  are really designed to do nothing more than put money in the pocket of [companies],” he says.

Products that are marketed as useful for preventing child abduction include GPS-equipped tracking devices, radio-frequency-enabled locaters, kid-friendly cellphones, child-ID kits and any number of low-tech tattoos, stickers, bracelets and name tags. These products cost anywhere from $10 for a set of six Lost and Found Temporary Tattoos to $1,000 for an inch-long tracking device that uses GPS and assisted GPS. (Assisted GPS can provide a better signal than traditional GPS devices can.)

More often than not, these products are sold under the premise that they provide “peace of mind,” or they’re pitched with queries, such as: “How safe are your children?” as is the case with BrickHouse Security, which makes locating devices. It’s simple marketing. Nervous parents want any “tool” that they can find to protect their children. Even a spokesperson for Amber Alert concedes that the devices are an “added bonus” that wasn’t available to earlier generations of parents.

Yes, having a child vanish is a parent’s worst fear, but after speaking with experts that include parent groups and police officers, we believe that Klaas’ skepticism is justified. Often, free items are just as effective, if not more so, than stuff for sale that is long on reassurance but short on results. In fact, we even wonder about the necessity of the latter.

Kim Estes of PEACE of Mind, a Washington-state-based parenting organization, says a lot of the high-price GPS devices are geared—and priced—to a higher socioeconomic group. “The companies are preying on parental fear, exploiting it to sell a product,” she says.

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There are no statistics that break out abductions by socioeconomic groups, partly because income is not essential information for a police report. Sherryll Kraizer, executive director of Coalition for Children, argues that “the vast, vast majority of abductions are family-related and are not specific to class.” But she agrees that many manufacturers of GPS and radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices see a big payday by targeting parents that have more disposable income.

Although much of the technology has been mainstream for a decade, it is difficult to put any numbers to the sales of products sold on a promise of preventing abductions. Most of them fall under home or personal security. But the market is saturated with radio-frequency (RF) and GPS products that are touted as abduction-preventative, says Alyssa Dver, executive director of The Center to Prevent Lost Children.

Dver worries that people blindly trust what product marketers claim. “You still have to watch your kid,” she says.

DANGEROUS STRANGERS. The experts with whom we spoke say fears of abduction are over-reported by news outlets—and sensationalized by companies that are looking to sell products.

No one knows a parent’s susceptibility to this better than Lt. David Mann of the Buffalo (N.Y.) Police Department. He has spent 22 years as a police officer, including 13 years specializing in sex-offense, domestic-violence, child-abuse and missing-person cases.

He says he knows that random abductions are rare, but he still lost his composure when in 2007 his then-10-year-old son slipped out of his sight while they were Christmas shopping in a mall. His son was out of sight only for a few minutes.

“I know from years of training and experience that my anxiety was completely irrational,” Mann says. “But the images we’ve all seen in the media of those rare cases where a child was abducted by a stranger made me forget what I know.”

Let’s look at the numbers. A total of 797,500 children (2,185 a day) were reported missing during a 1-year period in a 2002 Department of Justice study titled “National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children.”

The 7-year-old report is the latest such data available, but the rates have not changed, says Chicago Police Capt. Ruth Wedster, a child-safety expert.

Most of those kids were found safe, and 203,900 were the victims of family abductions. When you add the incidences of family abductions and those of children who simply arrived home late, it accounts for most of those reports, Wedster says. Only 115 were abducted by a stranger or a slight acquaintance—a person whom the child could not name or whom the child’s family had known for fewer than 6 months. “There are actually very few ‘stranger abductions,’ so, yes, these marketers are pushing fear,” Kraizer says.

And then there’s the impact that the Internet has had on putting parents more on edge. A 2006 study by Insight Research Group found that 80 percent of U.S. parents worry about their kids being contacted by strangers on the Internet. About 88 percent of 12-to-14-year-olds in the United States use the Internet, according to a 2008 report from Center for the Digital Future.

“I think parents are really attuned to the notion that their kids may be at risk—even sitting in their own home,” says Thomas Donohue, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on children and technology. You have to establish trust with your children, so they’ll tell you where they’re going and with whom they’re going. The quick fix is not, “I’ll get a GPS, so I know where Billy is,” he says.

FINGERPRINT FILE. Parents ask Wedster whether they should use high-tech devices to monitor their children. She responds round-aboutly by asking whether they know their child’s blood type.

“The chances of your child being accidentally injured are much greater than a kidnapping,” Wedster says. “A better precaution would be to send your child off with medical information, such as allergies, blood type and insurance information.”

Every law-enforcement agent, safety advocate and educator with whom we spoke agrees that a child ID kit—a collection of photos, personal information and distinguishing characteristics—is one of the most useful tools when a child goes missing. “If a child is lost or abducted, the early hours of the investigation are critical,” Mann says. If you have a current photograph, lists of people with whom the child has contact and locations with which the child is familiar, police immediately can set out to locate the child instead of spending time gathering this information.

Many police departments and child-safety organizations offer digital child-ID templates free of charge online. But numerous Web sites sell ID kits. These come in the form of a CD or a USB drive and typically go for $30 to $40. One includes a DNA kit and a biometric (digitally authenticating) fingerprint scanner that are stored in a bulletproof suitcase! The cost: $2,000.

“Spending a lot of money on this product is not necessary,” says Nancy McBride, national safety director of National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). “The free or no-cost child-ID kits are going to serve basically the same purpose.”

Linda Criddle, author and child-safety expert, says a paper-only kit is inadequate. Electronic information can be updated quickly and distributed instantly by e-mail, which is crucial when time is of the essence. A high-resolution digital photograph is also important, because age-enhancement technology relies on the eyes when it builds an image, McBride says.

Low-tech fingerprint kits are relatively cheap—$5 to $10. And they are widely available. But take care when you make the prints. Ten black blobs on a piece of paper aren’t helpful, McBride says. The print has to be clear enough that the different points in the fingerprints can be entered into the National Crime Information Center database.

NCMEC also recommends that you include your child’s DNA in his/her ID kit. You can buy kits online for $5 to $200, but you also can find them for free at police stations and child-safety and crime-watch organizations.

“It sounds very high-tech, but it’s really not,” McBride says. Yet she recommends that you have a trained individual, such as a law-enforcement or health-care professional, perform this.

Of course, these kits are helpful only if your child actually is abducted. A promise of prevention? Forget it. And DNA and fingerprint kits are useful only as a means to help identify a dead body.

WHERE'S THE KID? In a recent Duracell commercial, a mother grows frantic when she loses her child in a park. She whips out a homing device—the $280 BrickHouse Child Locator—and uses it to find her child playing with a balloon.

Panned by MSNBC in July 2008 for “playing up parents’ worst fears,” the ad nevertheless had an impact. BrickHouse Security, the manufacturer, sold 4 months of inventory in the 48 hours after the ad first aired that month.

“The number-one comment we get from parents is, ‘I never knew anything like this existed, and if I knew last year, I would have bought it then,’” says Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security.

The BrickHouse Locator is one of many RFID devices on the market. Most cost $150 to $200. These devices use radio frequencies to communicate with a tag that can be placed anywhere on a child’s clothing. A small console provides directions (or audible cues) that you can follow to the tag.

The Locator claims a range of up to 600 feet, but many RFID devices have a range of a mere 30 feet. They’re prone to interference, and the directional beeps can be difficult to follow. Fletcher Previn, founder of GPSMagazine.com, says RFID units do not work in malls, grocery stores or any other crowded environment. “For the purposes of finding a child, RFID is grossly inadequate,” Previn says. “But if you were at home, and the thing you were looking for was stationary (like your car keys or your wallet), it would allow you to find that.”

GPS units that are geared specifically to preventing child abduction cost $200 to $800, a $20 to $60 monthly plan and occasionally an additional setup fee. Expensive models resemble spy equipment. They can track people and cars, tell you how fast a child is moving and even e-mail you updates on your child’s location. Most of the transmitters that the GPS devices track are small enough to slip into a pocket, attach to a wrist or even sew into clothing.

Although GPS has the promise of tracking anyone, anywhere, the reality is somewhat different. GPS wasn’t designed for indoor use, such as inside a mall. It also can be hampered by clouds and other satellite obstacles.

Devices that use a combination of GPS and assisted GPS can send a signal via cellphone towers. But, battery life is still a problem. Some last only 8 or 12 hours before needing a charge, Previn says. And, as Donohue notes, a child simply can discard a GPS tag if he/she doesn’t want to be traced.

Kevin Osborn, an analyst with the research and consulting firm Social Technologies, predicts that GPS and RF-equipped child-safety devices will be commonplace in 5 years. Previn predicts that today’s $800 GPS and assisted GPS devices will cost less than $150 within 3 years.
BIG BROTHER IS TEXTING. The fact is you already might own a kid-tracking GPS device—your child’s cellphone. Since 2005, U.S. cellphone manufacturers have been federally mandated to include a GPS chip that can be located by an emergency responder.

That has inspired Alltel, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and a few pay-as-you-go cellphone-service providers to develop similar “family-locator plans.” For $5 to $10 a month, you can trace your child’s path on your phone and receive driving directions to his/her location. You can establish a geographical perimeter, and your phone will alert you if your child strays beyond that boundary.

Approximately 41 percent of 8-to-12-year-olds and 72 percent of 13-to-17-year-olds have cellphones, according to Yankee Group, a technology-research company.

“If [Polly] would have been in a situation like [she was in 1993] today, she’d have the presence of mind to put her cellphone in her pocket, which would have given us the ability to track the [perpetrator] and be able to save my daughter’s life,” Klaas says.

Indeed, police often use the technology to locate runaways who are reported missing by a parent, Mann says.

But despite its usefulness—and that you don’t need to buy a dedicated tracking device—it’s not a perfect solution. In the unlikely event that you have a different cellphone service than your child, you should know that the services work only with phones that are on the same service. In other words, if you use Verizon, and your child is on AT&T, you won’t be able to locate your child. Also, as with any cellphone, GPS-enabled models don’t work if the phone is shut off, uncharged or receiving a weak signal from a tower.

“You have to take into consideration [that] kids [might not] want to be found or tracked,” Donohue says. “They can leave the GPS device in their friend’s bedroom, and they can go out to do something else, because they don’t want their parents monitoring them.”

UNDER MY THUMB. Implanted chips can’t be turned off or left in a friend’s bedroom, so they are perhaps the ultimate in tracking devices. Michael Ann Thomas, a mother of a toddler from Seattle, says she has had microchips implanted in her two cats but wants to take it further. “My husband and I talked about it actually—‘Why don’t they microchip kids?’” she says.

The idea is not as outlandish as it might seem. In fact, it could be the future of child-tracking in the United States. In 2004, Food and Drug Administration approved Applied Digital Solution’s VeriChip, a grain-size implantable chip ($200 to $300) that stores a person’s 16-digit “bar code.” When scanned, the bar code links to a patient’s medical history. Roughly 2,000 patients worldwide carry the implanted chip.

Despite VeriChip’s devices being linked to cancer in mice and dogs in a series of separate studies that were reported in 2007, FDA still considers the chips to be safe, and developers are investigating other possible applications.

Meanwhile, as kidnapping rates surge in Mexico, a company called Xega implanted rice-size tracking chips in the arms of more than 2,000 Mexicans in 2008. (The chips cost $4,000, plus a $2,200 annual fee.) When the wearer presses a panic button on a separate box, Xega calls the police. Police can use satellites to track radio signals that are transmitted by the chip. However, if the wearer loses the box, there’s no way to trigger the panic button. That’s quite a drawback for a $6,200 device! Nevertheless, Xega plans to expand to Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela this year, according to Reuters.

Obviously, implants raise questions about privacy, particularly as a child grows older. They also can’t be removed easily. And there is no guarantee that safety will be provided by such devices.

We all want to protect our children, but when it comes to products marketed as safeguards against your child’s abduction, a little common sense—and good parenting—goes a long way.

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