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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.

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