Terror in cyberspace
By Rob Marino
Date: December 27, 2003
Area police combat Internet crime in different manners
Computers are everywhere. In businesses, homes, schools, libraries and even airports, more and more people are using computers for a variety of purposes. From shopping and banking to taking college courses and playing video games, computers provide instant access to unparalleled educational and recreational opportunities. Chat rooms and e-mails are now replacing telephones as the preferred means of communicating with faraway loved ones, friends - and even strangers.
But law-abiding citizens aren't the only ones taking advantage of the conveniences of today's computer technology. Criminals, including child predators, are using computers and the Internet as a means to prey on unsuspecting victims. Beyond the traditional public places to hunt for victims, such as playgrounds and malls, child predators are now everywhere, courtesy of computers.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 77 million kids will be online by 2005, which means more youths will be vulnerable to predators.
With a rash of recent Internet crime busts involving children, local law enforcement agencies acknowledge that online predators are becoming more prevalent. A former Boston U.S. Coast Guard civilian from Amesbury was arrested earlier this year after Coast Guard officials discovered more than 400 images of child pornography on his office computer. In November, Newbury police arrested a Rowley man for enticing a child after he attempted to lure two teenage girls he previously talked to online.
Earlier this month, Newburyport police arrested a Cambridge man for enticing a child after he thought he was meeting a 14-year-old girl at the public library. He was introduced to a pair of handcuffs instead. The arrest was the first for Newburyport Police Department's new unit aimed at catching Internet predators, as well as other online criminals. Officer Chuck Eaton and Inspector Brian Brunault are heading up the new unit.
"They were talking with him online and the conversation was very personal, of a romantic nature," says Newburyport Police Lt. Robert Gagnon. "Over a period of just a couple of hours, a meeting was arranged and he ended up coming to town, and our officers were waiting for him."
"What's disturbing is that in 40 minutes, that guy is no longer in Cambridge. That guy is sitting in the Newburyport Public Library," says Marshal Thomas Howard. "That could be any boy or girl in this community because they're in a chat room, and in 40 minutes, a family's life could change."
"Let's say the kid gets out of school at 2:30 and the parents get home at 5 o'clock," Gagnon says. "Between 2:30 and 5 p.m., this guy would have had enough time to strike up a conversation, make the arrangements to meet and be there before the parents even get home from work."
40 minutes later
Fortunately this time, it was the offender whose life was turned upside down.
"In an instant, he knew his whole life was ruined," Howard says. "He's married, has a child and by making that stupid, conscious decision to talk to somebody he thought was 14 on the Internet and then act upon it and drive here, that 40 minutes changed his whole life forever."
"He was the classic perfect-case scenario, where he described himself to a 'T', what time he was going to be there, what he was actually wearing, right down to what he was driving," Brunault says. "Everything fell into place. Not all cases are going to be this simple and as quick and easy. We understand that. But to have the first case go that well was actually a shocker."
Despite the unit's first successful bust, Howard acknowledges that there's still plenty to learn. From subpoenaing records of online conversations to locating Internet service providers, there's a lot more to the law enforcement side of catching and prosecuting online criminals than meets the eye. Issues of jurisdiction can also come into play depending on whether an online criminal is from out of state, as is often the case with child predators.
"A lot of these predators feel safer going out of state to meet these kids, because they feel like an unknown," Howard says. "There's a huge number of different things that go along with the Internet that we're learning. We're talking about a really, really large area. We're talking the world, so it's not as easy as going across the street to grab somebody. It's a challenge."
As in the recent Newburyport case, a 26-year-old Rowley man showed up at a Newbury home last month expecting to meet two teenage girls, ages 15 and 16, who he previously talked to online. He met up with Newbury police instead. But unlike the imaginary 14-year-old played by an undercover officer in the Newburyport case, the two teenage girls in the Newbury incident were far from fictitious.
Newbury Detective John Lucey Jr. says the man briefly met the girls on one occasion prior to his arrest. Fortunately for the two girls, nothing criminal happened during that first encounter, and one of the parents became aware of the situation and notified police.
"You could have been reading a different article in the paper," Lucey says. "You just don't know what you're dealing with."
While Lucey has some specialized training to handle such crimes, he says the town's police department doesn't have the resources to have a full-fledged operation like Newburyport's.
"I wish we had the resources to do that, because I think to make these predators as uncomfortable as possible is a good thing," he says. "But I don't think we have the manpower to be a predator of the predators all the time. The cases that are brought to our attention we can definitely address. But in a case like our department, parental involvement is clutch."
Equal playing field
Manpower is also a factor for the Amesbury Police Department. Although a few of the department's detectives and officers have received specialized training, the resources aren't there to have a devoted unit like Newburyport.
"We haven't gotten into jumping into chat rooms and finding people," says Amesbury Police Officer Tom Hanshaw, who has received special training regarding Internet crimes. "Part of the problem is manpower. Most of our emphasis in the department right now is on education in the schools."
Since 1996, Hanshaw, the town's public safety officer, has been going to the local schools to talk to students about strangers, dialing 911 and other safety-related topics. A couple of years ago, he says he incorporated Internet safety as part of his education in the schools. Currently, Hanshaw educates students in kindergarten through grade four. However, the department has talked about expanding computer safety education to include middle-school students, since that age range is often the preferred target of online predators.
"It's eye opening to see how easy people can become victimized by crimes like this," Hanshaw says.
"It's amazing how easy people can reach out and touch someone," Lucey says. "The technology is moving so fast and it's becoming so much more readily available that predators are getting smarter, too. They're learning from their colleagues and from their own mistakes."
Detective James McLaughlin, from the Keene, N.H. Police Department, is well regarded in law enforcement for his knowledge and experience involving Internet crimes against children. McLaughlin, who helped train members of the Newburyport Police Department's new unit, agrees there are still plenty of challenges facing law enforcement regarding Internet crime.
"There is no central repository logging in crimes over the Internet," he says. "The prevalence of this crime is not known, although simply looking at the results law enforcement officers have had to date indicate a high rate of persons using the Internet to sexually exploit children. I wish I could report it was easier to arrest someone in 1996 than it is now, thus showing we are having some effect, but I have not seen any change to date."
Locating suspects to arrest isn't the difficult part, McLaughlin says. It's having services such as law enforcement manpower, prosecutors with time and forensic examiners for seized computers, all of which are difficult to locate.
"The challenges facing law enforcement is simply having the resources to investigate, process and prosecute these crimes," he says. "Agencies have to recognize a new threat to the children who live in their community. No longer is a child living in a sleepy rural town safe. He or she is on an equal playing field for victimization as a result of their Internet connection."
It's very easy for offenders to obtain personal information about a child, McLaughlin says. In fact, the detective says his department does the same thing with children who are online and engaging in risky behavior.
"We chat with them and socially engineer the conversation, and most of the time, we easily identify them and have the police contact the child's parents for crime prevention purposes," he says. "I tell parents not to have a computer in their home for their children unless they are willing to learn about its use and be as knowledgeable as their child. Otherwise, they are unable to supervise and ensure the safety of their children."
A whole new world
As law enforcement officials attempt to stay on top of the ever-evolving world of computer technology, they agree that parents need to stay on top of what their children are doing, especially since kids tend to be more computer savvy than adults. Beyond learning about computers from their children, parents should seek their own education about how to use computers.
However, law enforcement officers and officials in Newbury, Newburyport and Amesbury all point to previous educational seminars held by state law enforcement agencies in conjunction with local police departments that have been poorly attended by parents.
Nonetheless, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett is all the more vigilant in teaming up with local law enforcement agencies in order to better educate the public. Blodgett says he's teaming up with Attorney General Tom Reilly in hosting an upcoming regional training session for Merrimack Valley high school students. Blodgett adds that the his office recently held an countywide seminar at North Shore Community College for school administrators, in which more than 100 people attended.
The district attorney's office has also distributed an interactive video, called "Missing," to all of the county's middle schools, Blodgett says. "It's an interactive game where we teach them about the dangers of these predators and what to look for," he says. "They sort of play detective."
Another video program called Flashpoint includes a five-session segment on Internet intelligence in which youth participants become "cyber surveyors," addressing issues such as online safety, privacy, hate sites and laws relating to the Internet. This month, the district attorney's office hired its first-ever civilian forensic investigator, who will focus specifically on Internet crimes, including child predators, identity thieves and scam artists.
"His only job is to use the computer to solve computer crimes," Blodgett says. "We're very excited about this. We're doing the best we can to get the word out and offer our services to prevent these situations from happening."
As for online predators specifically, "it's a whole new world in that regard," Blodgett says. "Before, law enforcement had to worry about luring in a different way, which was someone hanging around a school, a mall or a youth organization. The Internet has made it much easier for these predators to lure their victims because it offers unimaginable access and speed and that's a huge worry for us in law enforcement.
"The parents still have to be in control in terms of the use of the computer with their kids," Blodgett adds. "If they don't set limits, there could be problems, and that's what we're trying to avoid."
While the Newburyport Police Department's new unit hopes to net many more online criminals in the future, the officers also recognize it's a never-ending battle. The key to making the unit a success is by better educating children and parents. Toward that end, the department plans to host educational seminars and assemblies for parents and students in the near future.
"We're not disillusioned here thinking that we're going to put a dent into it and we're going to get all these predators off the market," Newburyport's Gagnon says. "It just isn't going to happen. There's too many of them."
"It's happening everywhere," Blodgett says, "and that's what we have to be careful of."
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