Profiting From Fear
There's money to be made from parent fears of child abductions.
Thursday, August 6, 1998
We''re afraid our children will be abducted, actively afraid after we hear about Christina Williams disappearing from our own streets. Desperately, we look for some kind of protection, creating a lucrative niche in the marketplace, so the private sector responds.
Dozens of companies use sites on the Internet to push all manner of products and services designed to make us feel like our children are just a little bit safer, but the experts and police say most of them are unnecessary and are designed to profit off our fears.
"For less than a nickel a day, membership in Childlink creates that critical link between you and your child," reads one site, while others try to shame us into a purchase with admonitions like, "Protect your children...It''s your responsibility!" Others push their products as a panacea for what scares us, offering, "Protection for your child, peace of mind for you."
Companies offer everything from overpriced "child identification kits" (up to $25 for kits given away for free by most police departments), to databases of children''s information for police agencies and media outlets when young clients turn up missing, to lost-and-found services for children bearing special iron-on patches.
Often, the sites escalate our fear factor in their competition with one another, such as the National Child Registry that warns parents that "Fingerprinting is not enough!!" No, you need to pay money to get those fingerprints in their databases.
Most reputable missing child organizations-including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Klaas Foundation, the only two nonprofits backed by the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department-say such products are both unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.
"We tend to take the position that almost everything a child needs is available free of charge," says Nancy McBride of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "As far as products and alarms and databases, none of that will keep a child from being abducted."
The "pretty grim reality" of things like DNA sampling and fingerprinting, McBride says, is that these are things that help to identify children once they are found, usually as a means of identifying dead bodies.
Klaas Foundation founder Marc Klaas-whose daughter, Polly, was abducted and murdered-agrees that most products do almost nothing to prevent tragedies like this.
"Why should a parent pay gobs of money for something they can do themselves?" asks Klaas.
Rather than buying products, police and child advocates say parents should have a good recent photograph of their child and a good list of descriptive information, such as eye color and distinguishing marks.
"The whole idea is to gather as much information as necessary and keep it in a safe place," says Dave Crozier, a crime prevention specialist with the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department. "When a parent thinks a child has been abducted, it''s pretty scary, so it''s nice to have that information handy."
Compiling information and keeping it handy is precisely what many of the companies say they''ll do, for a price. But McBride and Klaas both say there are other sides to that benefit.
McBride is concerned about the exploitation factor with many of these companies, especially those that are obviously sowing the seeds of fear, or selectively using statistics that exaggerate the chances of a child abduction.
For example, one company on the Internet, Tag-a-Kid, boldly proclaims "one in 42 children will become a missing child"-a misleading claim that exaggerates the real threat of a child being abducted.
"To try to capitalize on that fear and make parents think that their child is next is wrong and totally inappropriate," McBride says.
But an even bigger concern to the NCMEC is the growing number of companies that compile detailed information about children into their national databases, ostensibly so it can be circulated to police agencies and media outlets nationwide if a child comes up missing.
McBride said there are very real opportunities for abuse and criminal activities by someone tapping into a database of children.
"We are adamantly opposed to these national databases," McBride says. "We have serious concerns about what happens later to all this information that someone is collecting."
Concern over databases also seems to be validated by the fact that many of the companies producing child abduction prevention products are short-lived. Many of the Websites for these companies are no longer active, and many of the phones have been disconnected. None of three companies contacted for this story returned Coast Weekly phone calls.
Klaas is also critical of national databases. "I don''t see a reason to put a kid in anybody''s database," Klaas says. "I don''t believe in that. I think it''s a pile of crap."
Klaas said protecting one''s child shouldn''t be a costly endeavor.
"It becomes very exclusive then, and there is an exploitation factor," Klaas said. "It''s exploiting fear...I have some very strong feelings about some of the things done out there."
Like the Monterey County Sheriff''s Department and several local police departments, the Klaas Foundation offers fingerprint kits for free: "We would never charge an individual for that."
The Klaas Foundation does charge for some things, like its child safety video that goes for $20. Klaas says that''s only to help cover the $100,000 in production costs, not make a profit.
"Why aren''t we just giving it away? Well, we have to stay in business," he says.
Finally, merchandise and databases for sale can create a dangerous illusion of security, especially when they make parents think they can relax their watchful eyes and suspicious judgment. While buying child protection products may give us a feeling of empowerment to counter our essential powerlessness against random acts of evil, that may just be an illusion.
"What could Christina Williams have done? What could my daughter, Polly, have done?" asks Klaas, who has lent his support to the Williams family.
In both cases, having fingerprints, DNA samples, registry in a national database, iron-on clothing patches or any other products would likely have made no difference. Still, with today''s budding technological advances, there could be products in the future that make a difference-for a price.
One company, GlobalTrak Intl. Corp., is developing a product using satellite Global Positioning System technology that can identify the location of your child''s special wristband within a few meters.
Company spokesman Dan Holmes says KidTrak should be released later this year at a cost of $795 per unit, plus a $40 per month cost for the tracking service.
Even Klaas says this is one product that could actually offer hope that a lost child would be found before harm could befall them, and he says, "They would be justified in charging whatever they want to charge, because of what it would do and because it would cost a lot of money to develop." CW