'We're all looking for a connection': OPP warns of increasing dangers of online world

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OPP Sgt. Annie Collins was particularly disturbed to hear the details of Sunday’s abduction attempt involving an infant in Ottawa.

As the region’s community safety co-ordinator, based at the OPP’s east region headquarters in Smiths Falls, she has delivered countless sessions in area schools where she has been warning kids about the rising dangers of online predators.

And while she wouldn’t comment directly on the details of the Mother’s Day incident at Eva Taylor Court, which remains under investigation by Ottawa police, Collins said she sympathizes with the newborn’s mother, Melanie Armstrong.

“We’re all looking out there for a connection with people,” Collins said. “And I can’t obviously speak for the mom, but I know as a mother myself, you can feel a bit alone sometimes — when you’re the only one up at night dealing with a child — you want to reach out to other people that have similar experiences and circumstances.

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“So I totally see how something like this could have happened,” Collins said. “But (more generally) I want to make sure people are aware that talking online is one thing, but the minute you’re giving out an address to someone you don’t actually know, that’s when it becomes a bit more dangerous.”

Collins said she maintains her own Facebook profile and often sees similar invitations to things like a “Meet new moms” groups.

“A lot of the intentions of people on there are good,” she said. “However, we still have to protect ourselves, because when we do join these groups, we’re often leaking a lot of personal information from our own Facebook accounts.

“So ideally you would be showing as little personal information as possible, like even your birthday. And if you want to exchange goods, we always recommend that you use a well-lit, under-surveillance public area in your community.”

The OPP operates its Community Safe-Trade initiative, which Collins said is helping to reduce property crime and online market scams, while encouraging people to take steps to avoid opening themselves up to identity theft, another of the OPP’s “major concerns,” Collins said.

As a police officer, a part-time educator and also as a parent, Collins has plenty of first-hand experience with an ever-shifting social media world.

“I joined TikTok just because my daughter was on it,” she said. “I’m ensuring that her account is completely locked down, so it’s not open to the public, which is where a lot of issues come up. Not using their own faces for profile pictures… we know the bad people are going to be where the children are.

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“They’re going to be lurking in online gaming, pretending they’re the same age, asking innocent questions to gain trust, things like that,” she said. “Unfortunately we as parents need to be on top of it, and my generation is still trying to fathom out half this stuff, because the kids are well ahead of us.”

“Criminals have a well-established home in cyberspace now,” Collins said, “and we should always be aware of that. Everything is being done online now, and I can see a lot of dangerous situations with that, especially now when so many parents are so busy working when their children are doing online learning.

“A lot of education needs to be put into keeping yourself safe online,” Collins said.

One of Armstrong’s friends has started an online fundraising drive to raise money to allow the mother to move from her Britannia home, the site of the attempted abduction. As of Wednesday evening, the GoFundMe page had raised over $1,330, around a third of the $4,000 goal.

Amanda Poirier said on the page that the funds would be used to “hire packers and movers” and purchase security equipment for Armstrong’s new place, such as cameras.

“I know these times are tough for everyone, but if everybody could donate even a few dollars, and share this post, it would be extremely helpful, very appreciated, and life changing for my friend and her children and their future,” read the post.

ahelmer@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/helmera

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