Man in white van 'an urban myth'
In recent years, many media reports about men in vans attempting to snatch children off the streets has played on a parent's greatest fear.
But criminologists say most of the reports are false, and the story about the man in the white van has become an urban myth.
They believe children are far more likely to be harmed by domestic violence than by strangers.
Last month, a report about two men in a van attempting to abduct a nine-year-old girl on the New South Wales central coast sent the media into a frenzy.
Two days later, police informed the media that the attempted abduction report was false, that the young girl had made it up.
There was little media interest in the clarification. The Daily Telegraph reported on page nine that the story was false.
"There's nothing more frightening to a parent that some complete stranger could snatch their child and inflict harm or murder the child," said Dr Don Weatherburn, the director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.
"The media know that and they exploit that."
During last September's school holidays, New South Wales police received 30 reports about attempted child abductions in one week.
No child had disappeared, but that did not stop images of white vans appearing on front pages and on the television.
"Last Friday here in Auburn, a 12-year-old girl was being followed around by a man in a white van," said one television report. "Two weeks ago in Tempe a girl was being followed by two men in white van, a bit different to the other two white vans."
Sydney mother-of-four Natalie Morris lives in a street where one of the attempted child abductions was reported to have taken place.
Police were unable to establish a case, but six months after the story about the attempted abduction Ms Morris says parents and children in her street are still living in fear.
"There's a pit in your stomach thinking I can't let me kids walk next door without me being there," she said. "They've lost their freedom and they've lost trying to explore and be little children."
Dr Weatherburn says the media knows the vast majority of reports about men in white vans trying to snatch children are false.
"They've got no interest in telling people subsequently that it was a false report or that there was no evidence that an abduction took place," he said.
"They're certainly not interested in correcting anything they got wrong at the time, so people are left with this after taste, feeling that abduction is extremely prevalent."
Ms Morris wants the media to change the way it reports child abduction stories, especially during the school holidays.
"I'd like to see the truth," she said. "If it was untrue, print something just as big, just as bold, and say that due to further investigations it wasn't true."
Police say they take all claims of attempted child abduction seriously, but reports about men in white vans often peak during the school holidays.
The false reports also waste valuable police resources.
"It seems to be a common theme, whether each and every one is made up I can't confirm because I don't know what took place at the scene," said Detective Superintendent John Kerlatec.
"But I can say that there are several matters that are totally false that have involved white vans."
Forensic psychologist Dr Christopher Lennings says the urban myth about the man in the van probably began when the America's FBI created of a profile for a highly organised killer.
"And a typical profile was a person who had duct tape and a knife and scissors and all that sort of stuff and they could drive people around in a van with no windows and that sort of thing," he said.
The FBI profile of the man in a van was then picked up by Hollywood movies, like The Silence Of The Lambs.
Criminologists say that children are far more likely to be harmed by domestic violence than by strangers.
"The stranger danger is grossly over emphasised in the media," Dr Weatherburn said.
"It's not interesting for the media to know that the majority of harm inflicted on kids is by parents or relations.
"The idea of the stranger walking in and abducting a child or murdering a child is given way too much emphasis, when the prosaic reality is that it's the people the child knows who represent the biggest threat."
COMMENT: I checked and yes the McCanns have had two white vans in their ' alleged abduction by a paedophile with no evidence Madeleine has come to any serious harm' , one owned by Hewlett .