The statistics are alarming. Of the estimated 35 million children now surfing the Internet, one in five has received an online sexual solicitation in the last year.
That figure comes from "Online Victimization, a Report on the Nation's Youth," a study compiled by the Crimes Against Children Research Center in conjunction with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It further states that only about 25 percent of all teens who were approached told a parent about the encounter. Worse, one in 33 solicitations was considered aggressive, meaning the predator called, sent money or gifts, or suggested a face-to-face meeting.
While there are no firm statistics on how many pedophiles actually do meet with their victims, a forthcoming study reveals that nine out of 10 Internet "travelers" (predators who travel sometimes cross-country to meet and have sex with minors after chatting with them online) admitted that they had sexually molested children before their arrest. Another study published in Corrections Today found that the "average incarcerated pedophile reports being arrested for only one out of every 30 molestations" and that the "average non-incarcerated pedophile molests 117 youngsters."
Even those teens who don't actually meet face to face with their abusers, however, are often traumatized. A quarter of those who'd been solicited reported feeling "distressed" about the encounters.
"My contention is that these predators are stealing the innocence away from our children," says Jim Murray, chief of the Peachtree City (Ga.) Police Department. "Even if they just have a sexual conversation with a teen online, it skews that child's perception of love and sex. Whether they meet or not, these kids are still victims."
Luckily, there is a new breed of law enforcement officials who are tracking what the NCMEC now calls "Computer Facilitated Crimes Against Children," and these officers can be found online all over the country, ferreting out pedophiles on their own turf: the chat room.
The New Cyber Cops
"Anytime I go into a chat room and portray myself as a young teen," says Reserve Officer Julie Posey, who is currently with the Wellington (Kan.) Police Department, "I'll be contacted by 20 to 40 men in the first few minutes. And they're not saying 'Hi, how are you?' They're saying, 'Are you naked?'"
Posey began hunting predators almost 10 years ago as a civilian intern working with Mike Harris, an investigator at the Jefferson County (Colo.) District Attorney's Office. At that time, Harris was frustrated that there were so few ways to be proactive when it came to preventing child sex assaults. He reasoned that sex offenders were probably hanging out in the same chat rooms that children frequented, and began looking for an Internet-savvy helper. He was put in touch with Posey, and their very first case resulted in the arrest and conviction of Robert Stude, a 36-year-old man who, after only a few Internet chats and phone calls, wired Posey $1,000 to bring her two fictitious kids to Kansas so that he could have sex with them.
The experiences of Harris and Posey are hardly unique. Most of the law enforcement officers who have ventured into cyberspace are amazed at the brazen behavior of the online predators. Det. Darin Lenyi of the Laguna Beach (Calif.) Police Department and his team have only been online a total of three times in the three months they've been actively participating in chat rooms, but they've already made two arrests. "The very first night we started we got a guy from Long Beach who wanted to come and have sex with our '14 year old,'" Lenyi says. "It was incredibly easy; we had him come down, and we arrested him that night."
Ten years ago, before children were routinely victimized on the Internet, many district attorneys and prosecutors were reluctant to take cyber predator cases, mainly because there were no guidelines in place and no one was sure how well the cases would hold up in court. Now, however, most jump at the chance to handle an Internet sting.
"I can't imagine any DA not wanting to do it," says Posey. "They can see that there's no entrapment; you've just got this guy blabbing on and on that he wants to have sex with a kid. You know he's got child porn on his computer and, even if you can't go with state charges, you can still go federal."
Better yet, the conviction rates are staggering.
Harris, who is still tracking pedophiles online with his wife, Cassandra, reports a 100-percent conviction rate from his arrests, and every one of Posey's tips and subsequent arrests have led to a conviction. Special Agent Don Condon of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who has been actively seeking predators online for 10 years, also says that he has never personally lost one of these cases.
Even James McLaughlin, a detective assigned to investigate child sexual abuse and exploitation cases in Keene, N.H., whose chat room conversations and logs might be considered more aggressively sexual than some-his "kids" actually talk about sex, whereas many officers keep their language more vague and ambiguous-still boasts an impressive conviction rate.
"Of course, I'm not privy to all resolutions," McLaughlin says, "including those wherein a prosecutor chose not to go forward or there was some non-judicial resolution such as something involving mental health treatment but, in over 500 cases, we have never lost any at trial or at pretrial that I know of."
Entrapment is rarely an issue, mainly because once officers have seized a suspected predator's computer, they usually find so much other incriminating evidence that it buries the suspect in an avalanche of guilt and the majority of cases end in a plea. In almost every instance, the suspect is in possession of child porn; images, which often number in the thousands and are usually categorized by preference. In addition, many pedophiles keep pictures solely for trade, and they often save chat records and e-mail correspondence.
"The defense will occasionally try to attack the case prior to going to trial with, for instance, motions to suppress," says Condon. "Or they may try to raise an issue as to how the evidence was gathered or how it was maintained."
But these attempts are rarely successful, and few suspects choose to have a jury or judge view their explicit computer chat logs and the graphic photos of children engaged in sexual acts, especially since these predators quite often have families and sometimes high-profile careers.[PAGEBREAK]
In the "bedroom" community of Peachtree City, Ga., for example, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the state, those arrested include a Web designer employed by a school board, a production engineer for a major broadcasting company, and a school superintendent who allegedly kept child pornography on his work computer and allegedly approached his victims online while at work.
The vast majority of predators are male. However, there have been cases of mothers willing to sell their children for sex and, oddly enough, McLaughlin's first case in 1996 involved a woman who was meeting male teens online and participating in cybersex, phone sex, and actual meetings.
These pedophiles cross all class, cultural, ethnic, and age boundaries. The Keene (N.H.) Police Department has arrested several teachers, a priest, a police officer, a psychologist, and many other prominent members of society.
When asked to profile cyber predators, Condon issues a grim laugh. Then he says, "Male and alive."
Investigators are quick to point out that predators are everywhere, in rural settings and large cities alike, and that they're no longer stereotypical sleaze-bags who hang out at the schoolyard holding a bag of candy.
"Everybody we've arrested has had a college degree," says Murray. "The majority are white, anywhere from mid-20s to late 40s, with families and children, living in the suburbs, in very nice houses. They're working Little League and they're presidents of their homeowners' associations. We're talking about people that most parents would never suspect."
What's worse is that they're often very aggressive. The anonymity of the Internet has made child molesters bolder than they were 10 years ago when they were forced to approach their potential victims in public, and they expend an amazing amount of energy "grooming" their prey. Many send graphic pictures to test the waters and judge how far their potential victim might be willing to go, or they use such images to desensitize the child.
And while some predators only want to achieve sexual gratification online, a surprising number of them are willing to travel to have sex with their victims. Unfortunately, many of these "travelers" have struck before.
"I just recently arrested a fellow here in Tallahassee," says Condon, "and after going through his e-mail, I found out that he had actually traveled to California several years ago and had sexual relations with a girl. And at the time of his arrest, he'd been talking with one teenage girl in Orlando, one in South Carolina, and two detectives from two separate departments in Ohio."
An Accidental Assignment
Condon's department, like so many others that now investigate Internet-related child victimization cases, never set out to hunt online pedophiles. It just happened.
"It's an assignment I don't think any of us really foresaw in our careers," he says. "It's obviously something that didn't exist 15 years ago. This was just something that came to the attention of those of us who were involved in computer crimes, and we started doing it. A lot of us just kind of fell into it, more than anything else."
Many other departments report similarly inauspicious beginnings for their online predator investigation teams. For example, after several sexual assaults occurred in Lenyi's jurisdiction, officers discovered that they were a direct result of meetings that took place online. That was when local detectives went from simply monitoring the chat rooms to actively participating in the discussions and seeking out predators.
Other law enforcement officers stumbled into the profession from a different angle.
"I arrested a sex offender through a sting, and after he went through the system he worked in an undercover capacity," says McLaughlin. "One day, back in 1995, he brought in a laptop computer and told me that the machine would revolutionize child exploitation. He spoke about the transmission of child pornography and how detection could be avoided. He further said that children, otherwise unapproachable by sex offenders, would now be accessible through the Internet."
Obviously, the offender knew what he was talking about. Law enforcement officials now know first hand just how vulnerable children and teens are to this form of victimization. For them, protecting children by tracking online pedophiles is a high priority, but for some the motivation is more personal.
"I do this because I was molested as a child," says Posey, whose years of tracking pedophiles as a civilian inspired the 2003 television movie, "Defending our Kids: the Julie Posey Story," and whose experience with a serial rapist at age 16 led to her chance meeting with Harris. "I want to prosecute these guys and make sure that they can't victimize any more kids."[PAGEBREAK]
Starting a Program
More and more police departments are now learning how to track and catch online pedophiles with the help of numerous organizations.
The Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program was created in 1998 by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to help state and local law enforcement agencies investigate and apprehend Internet predators. The program is currently composed of 46 regional Task Force agencies, all of which provide funded training and assistance to those wishing to start their own program. They also have a set of mandates and guidelines that are consistent throughout the entire program.
"Typically, these investigations are multi-jurisdictional," says Special Agent Don Condon of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "They cross counties and state lines, and it's not unusual for us to ask for help in another part of the country. It's really important that the person who picks up the phone on the other end knows how to conduct these investigations, and that you know that they're following the same guidelines, the same standards that you follow in your own jurisdiction."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also offers a wealth of information and training. The Center's course schedule includes a seminar for executive officers, which is held in Alexandria, Va., and is totally funded, including airfare and most meals. It also offers regional classes and training that are specific to computer facilitated crimes against children and are partially funded. In addition, it provides "technical assistance," which includes two-and-a-half-day classes in communities across the country.
Another excellent resource is the Innocent Images National Initiative (IINI), which is a component of the FBI's Cyber Crimes Program. Dedicated to combating child sexual exploitation facilitated by online computers, the IINI provides training both at its Baltimore headquarters and on location as needed.
In addition, state run Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) programs also certify classes that address Internet-related sex crimes.
While this training is obviously a prerequisite for working on such sensitive cases, law enforcement officials also recommend networking with other departments. Most agencies are more than willing to help those who are looking for advice and are often willing to let investigators sit in on sessions so that they can get actual hands-on experience. Many, especially those who began working on these cases before training was even available, point out that tracking pedophiles online is a learning process and should be a collaborative effort.
"We all work together," says Pete Banks, director of training and outreach for NCMEC, when speaking about the organization's involvement with ICAC, prosecutors' groups, and individual police departments. "Why? Because there's only one side of the story: you can't be against protecting kids."
Portraying a teenager online requires more than just a computer and a cute moniker or "tag." In order to convincingly act the part, officers are taught how to talk, or rather type, like a teen.
For example, these kids communicate at lightning speed, and they don't waste a lot of time with unimportant details, which means grammatical errors and typos are common. Capital letters are rarely used, and punctuation is sporadic.
Investigators are encouraged to use fragmented sentences, slang, and misspellings. In addition, there is an almost universal lingo for instant messages and chat, and officers need to be well versed in this mode of communication before they log on.
Some of the more common abbreviations include:
asl or a/s/l-Age/Sex/Location
Brb-Be right back
MOS-Mother Over Shoulder
g2g-Got to go
wtf-What the f__k
Officers are also taught to sprinkle details of real teen life into their chats, e-mails, and conversations. Talk about school conflicts, being grounded, dealing with stepparents, getting caught chatting, trouble with a parent/friend/teacher; all add believable detail and help convice a suspected predator that he is, indeed, talking to a young teen.
An Innovative Approach
The State of Florida along with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) is aggressively addressing the online exploitation of children.
Last year, armed with a $100,000 grant from the Florida Department of Children and Family Services, the state bought 80 hours of training for 25 local police investigators. Upon completion of the training each officer was supplied with a laptop computer and two years of Internet access.
"What makes this program really unique is that often we'd have investigators who received training but didn't have equipment, or who had the equipment but not the Internet access," says Don Condon, special agent with the FDLE Computer Crime Center. "So we gave them all three."
Now funded on a year-to-year basis by the Children's Juvenile Justice Act, the program has been so successful that the FDLE has added 12 new agencies. In addition, they've been able to go back and train new investigators from the original agencies to make up for the loss of manpower due to attrition. This innovative program has also equipped investigators with software that allows them to quickly collect information from a suspect's computer without altering any of the data.
The program requires that agencies sign a Memorandum of Understanding specific to the FDLE and agree to abide by the guidelines set forth by the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and it also mandates that officers conduct a minimum of eight hours a week of online investigation. So far, the results have been impressive.
"We've put 37 investigators or agencies online," says Condon, "and we're able to really quantify some results here. Had it not been for this grant money, approximately 125 arrests would not have occurred within the last 12 months."
Kelly Kyrik is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado. She covers law enforcement and health topics.