Monday, July 28, 2008

The sad and ugly reality of the Internet

Did you know it may take just minutes for a sexual predator to solicit a child online and then try to set up a meeting date and place to consummate the crime?

That’s the ugly reality of today’s Internet, according to two women who work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force based at the Portsmouth (NH) Police Department visited yesterday by members of my New England chapter of Sisters in Crime (SINC).

We not only toured the station, sat in a cruiser and peeked into empty interrogation rooms, we also heard “The Real Stories of Women in Law Enforcement” from Captain Janet Champlin and fellow SINC NE member Felicia Donovan, who authors the Black Widow Agency mystery series when she’s not acting as the police department’s Information Systems Manager (and being an expert on cyber crime and computer forensics.)

Everyone knows police work isn’t pretty. But some of what we learned yesterday was downright sickening. I was already aware of a study that found one in every seven children under 18 has been sexually solicited online. But until yesterday, I didn’t realize how true it is that sexual predators don’t need to hang around playgrounds in dark trench coats anymore when it’s so easy to find victims from the comfort of their computers.

The Portsmouth PD’s task force has investigators trained to pose as children in chat rooms and identify predators who solicit children to engage in sex acts. Captain Champlin told us there are so many pedophiles online that a police officer posing as a child visiting a chat room will not only be solicited to engage in a sexual act within 5 or 10 minutes, but the predator also is likely to establish a time and meeting place – all in less than 15 minutes.

"It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” says Champlin, who oversees the task force.

Donovan adds that some predators will “groom” the child over time, sending e-mails and text messages, gifts and web cam images in the hope the child will “perform” for them. This grooming goes on without a custodial adult’s knowledge.

The danger is so great that parents who want to keep their children safe from online sexual solicitation should not allow them to have computers in their bedrooms where adults can’t easily monitor them, say the women. Champlin says giving a child open computer access is as dangerous as handing them the keys to a car without a license.

Both women also strongly believe that no child should have a web cam (small cameras whose images can be accessed using the Web and instant messaging). Predators often urge children to send identifying or sexual images via web cams, or send sexually oriented images to the children this way.

Unlike the “catch a predator” TV show segments, police cannot aggressively direct the online contact with a suspected predator. All of the discussion related to criminal activity must be initiated by the pedophile. Even then, it’s all too easy to find adults waiting to sexually victimize children.

Many were victims, themselves, says Champlin, and often have backgrounds that include incidents generally viewed as strong indicators of sexual or other physical abuse: bed-wetting, fire-starting and/or torturing animals.

Unfortunately, they then go on to victimize children and there are not enough police officers in the world to catch all the pedophiles lurking on the Internet.


Rosemary Harris said...

Sounds like you all had a very productive (and fun, even though serious business was discussed) outing. I wish I could have made it! Maybe next time...

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, Pat. It should find its way to every home with young children. The same think applies to cell phones with cameras. J.A. Janice had a recent mystery which used the problem in the story. I discovered text writing from her.

Pat Remick said...

Yes, Rosemary, it was a fascinating experience. We were immersed in a police world for three hours and I think everyone left with both heads and stomachs full!

Pat Remick said...

Wow, I hadn't thought about the cell phones with cameras angle... all pretty scarey stuff. Really too bad that the perverts are so technologically adept...

Chris Redding said...

They left off one thing.
Most game systems (playstate, Wii, X-box) have the ability to play with others online.
This is another place predators hang out.
The child can go out through the game system and to two-player games with anyone who is out there.
I know with the Wii you can recieve messages from the other person.
My son is not allowed to play on it with strangers. Ever!

Felicia Donovan said...

Thanks so much to everyone who attended our tour. We had a blast giving everyone the "behind the scenes" look at law enforcement along with my co-horts in crime.

The Internet is very much a double-edged sword that absolutely requires adult supervision and oversight. And yes, it has migrated from computers to cyberbullying and harrasment on cell phones, even potential stalking and predators on gaming sites. As we said the other day, there is NO substitute for parental oversight to keep children safe. Never underestimate the dangers of the "virtual" playground...

Felicia Donovan