Computer Crime Research Center


Phishing for pedophiles

Date: December 28, 2007
By: Jennifer Wadsworth

Nate Cogburn spends hours at work in online chat rooms. He talks about sex, pornography and “hooking up” with strangers.

And he’s doing it right under his boss’ nose.

For the Tracy detective, it’s just another day on the job. As one half of the city’s two-man Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit, Cogburn poses as a young teen in chat rooms. He sets up fake screen names and waits for predators to snag the bait.

“It’s like the Wild West out there,” Cogburn said, referring the thousands of unmonitored chat rooms on servers like Yahoo and AOL. “But with enough media attention, people are realizing that there’s a sheriff in town.”

Six months ago, the Tracy Police Department stepped into unfamiliar territory and assigned former patrolman Cogburn to monitor sex crimes on the Internet.

To date, the neophyte cyberinvestigator has arrested one confirmed Bay Area pedophile and another suspected pedophile. The most recent, a 72-year-old Marin County man named Vance Wilson, reportedly sent Cogburn pornographic Webcam images and confessed in the course of a two-hour chat that he fantasizes about having sex with a 10-year-old girl.

Wilson has yet to enter a plea on any count of abuse and is still fighting the case in San Joaquin County courts. A preliminary hearing is set for Jan. 4. The Web-savvy septuagenarian was under the impression that the 27-year-old Cogburn was a child in Tracy, according to Cogburn’s meticulously compiled chat logs.

“He jumped the bait,” Cogburn charged, leaning over his computer as it replayed the correspondence and Webcam footage through recording software called Camtasia. “You wouldn’t believe how fast some of these people prey on young kids. The Internet is like a haven for these guys.”

Most conversations last only hours before adult chatters cross the line and send pornographic photos to Cogburn’s avatar — his virtual ID — or arrange a face-to-face meet-up, the two actions punishable as abuse under the state penal code.

Along with shows like “To Catch a Predator” and the work of private sting operations like Perverted Justice, a group NBC filmed for a primetime show, Cogburn’s Internet patrols are part of a national move by law enforcers to set up cyber crime teams that halt sexual abuse before it starts.

Impressed by how many cases of abuse were prevented by adults acting as decoys for virtual predators, Cogburn and school resource officer Chuck Baker pitched the idea to monitor cyber crimes to police Chief David Krauss months ago.

Their plan got approved, and Tracy became one of several hundred cities throughout the nation to set aside manpower to lower the statistics of online sexual abuse.

Close to one in seven boys and girls ages 10 through 17 reports getting sexual solicitations from strangers online, and 34 percent of underage chatters have been unwillingly exposed to sexual images, according to a report recently issued by Internet Crimes Against Kids, a federal task force that Cogburn works with. Another 4 percent claim to have received aggressive requests from adults who tried to arrange an in-person meeting, phoned them or sent snail mail, gifts or money, the same survey found.

Though the number of predators Cogburn apprehends barely scratches the surface of seemingly ubiquitous online abuse, he said more authorities should learn to stay a step ahead of cyber-savvy sexual predators.

Three of Tracy’s 74 registered sex offenders have MySpace profiles using their real names.

“But there’s no way to tell which of them use fake IDs when they register,” Cogburn said. “It’s not like MySpace verifies the registrant’s information.”

The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office does not have a unit dedicated to fighting Internet crime. Neither do most police departments. Many agencies, like the county sheriff’s office, post tips online or refer victims to national hotlines or federally backed coalitions like Internet Crimes Against Kids.

“Before I started this assignment, I wondered who handled these crimes in Tracy, and the answer was no one. We need to keep up with technology, because predators do,” said Cogburn, who had his computer outfitted with tracking, chat and recording software to digitally document his cases. “They know the lingo; they watch the TV shows, and they visit their pro-pedophilia Web sites. These guys know what they’re doing.”

His online presence, however minimal, is a step in the right direction, he said.

“Me being (in chat rooms) throws (predators) off the trail,” Cogburn said. “If a guy is busy chatting with me, then I know he’s not bothering another kid right then.”

Cogburn spends most of his time dealing with offline rape, harassment and other sex-crime cases. He tries to get online between assignments and usually keeps a chat room avatar stationed online at any given time.

Offline, Cogburn can prosecute a predator only after the fact, when there’s an established victim. The Internet allows him to target potential predators and gives him license to arrest them for attempted abuse, instead of the real deal.

Cogburn’s first case on the cyber beat earned him his first arrest, too, and kept a potential sex offender at bay for weeks before he got locked up over the summer.

About six months ago, 27-year-old Juan Romero-Navarette approached a 14-year-old Tracy boy at the In-Shape gym on Tracy Boulevard and gave him a note with his phone number and e-mail address and a flirty message.

The boy’s mother called the police, and the Cogburn picked up the case. He struck up a correspondence with Romero-Navarro through Yahoo that lasted weeks before the 27-year-old pleaded guilty to arranging a meeting with a minor for lewd purposes and was sentenced to two years behind bars.

“E-mail is another tool these predators will use,” Cogburn said. “No one but the recipient can see it, and it gives them a chance to keep contact.”

Most of the time, unlike in Romero-Navarette’s case, Cogburn won’t catch wind of potential abuse from kids or their parents until it’s too late.

To change that, Tracy police try to get school resource officers in on the act, urging them in turn to recruit parents to monitor kids’ online activity.

School resource officer Baker is one such cyber-cop. He oversees 16 school campuses throughout Tracy and gets the word out to kids that their social networking sites are fertile ground for abuse.

“The sickening reality of sexual abuse is that it goes on in Tracy just like you see in those TV shows,” Baker said. “People need to realize that they’re vulnerable, especially these young teens. Parents need to monitor their children’s online activity. They need to put the computer back in the living room, where it’s in the open.”

Cogburn took it a step further.

“Kids should never be in chat rooms,” he said.

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Discussion is closed - view comments archieve
2008-01-23 19:41:24 - yes : this all so true. but , like... ronald ehrenfeld
2007-12-29 13:22:23 - This man deserves a Holiday named for him. Doug Woodall
2007-12-29 07:26:55 - La délégation pédophile Si on éstime... Alami mehdi
Total 3 comments
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