A 53-year-old press secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security uses the Internet to arrange a tryst with a young girl, but worries she’s a cop.
“Law enforcement is very good at this,” he writes to “Ashlynne.” “I have soooo much to lose.”
He did. “Ashlynne” was a Florida sheriff’s deputy.
A 44-year-old Georgia school superintendent uses a computer at work to arrange sex with 15-year-old “Holly” but worries about “loosing (sic) everything.”
He did. “Holly” was a local police officer.
A 52-year-old sports editor at the Washington, Pa. Observer-Reporter arranges for sex with 12-year-old “Jessica,” according to an e-mail transcript, but worries that he “could get in really big trouble.”
He did. “Jessica” was an agent from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s Child Predator Unit.
Across America, online sex stings are booming. Arrests have doubled since 2001, and so many cops are online that the federal Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force program is expanding its intelligence database so that police don’t trip over each other in cyberspace.
Cyberstings also are getting unprecedented exposure with Dateline NBC’s controversial “To Catch a Predator” series, which features a civilian group called Perverted Justice nabbing suspects while cameras roll.
The growth of this phenomenon raises big questions:
Are stings deterring predators? Or is the Internet creating more of them? And why are so many men _ almost all of them white and many well-educated _ trolling online for teens when they know they’re being hunted?
The short answers: Probably, maybe and because they can’t help themselves. But as is often the case with the subject of child molestation, the issues are a good deal more complicated than that.
The best evidence, for example, indicates that there has been a dramatic overall decline in sexual abuse of children in America over the past 15 years.
Yet at the same time, those who examine this sort of thing _ and those who put predators in jail for a living _ are pretty sure that Internet sex crimes are increasing.
Federal prosecutions certainly are. Cases against those who prey on children or collect kiddie porn have jumped from 344 in 1995 to 1,576 last year.
“I know we’re getting better at catching them,” said William Shore, a supervisory agent for the Pittsburgh FBI office. “I think the Internet is breeding this stuff.”
Dennis Guzy, head of Pennsylvania’s Child Predator Unit, thinks so, too. He’s been working stings for 25 years. In pre-Internet days, he worked with U.S. postal inspectors to catch predators by placing fake ads in hard-to-find porn magazines.
Now he and his six agents cast their net online, setting up Yahoo profiles in which they pose as 11- or 12-year-olds. They’re not hurting for targets. The unit has arrested 53 men since January 2005.
“This whole problem is driven by the Internet,” said Agent Guzy, a veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department’s sex crimes unit. “Child porn is so readily available on the Internet. I think individuals get out there and see the numerous teen sites, they see the wealth of child porn, and it starts to take them into a new world. I think that’s what drives them into the chat rooms.”
Even when they know better _ or should. One suspect on the Dateline show wrote to his pen pal: “now a days you have to be careful … you know cops pulling stings.”
Guzy remembers a case in which agents arranged to meet a suspect in the parking lot of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pa. Before the meeting, the man warned them that they had to be careful because he’d heard that the attorney general’s office was setting up stings in hotel parking lots around Harrisburg.
It’s not that these people are dumb. “It’s an irresistible urge,” said Guzy. “You might think the guy has to be the stupidest guy in the world. But when you ask him about it, he says, ‘Yeah, but in spite of all that, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have sex with a 9-year-old girl. So I took the risk.’ ”
Many suspects will write in their correspondence, “I hope you’re not a cop,” but they accept the answer when a cop says that he’s not.
“Why do they accept that (lie)? Because they need to,” said consultant Kenneth Lanning, formerly of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. “This is need-driven behavior, not thought-driven behavior.”
Police prowling this netherworld have to keep up with accelerating technology. Stings have moved from snail mail to e-mail and now instant messenger, requiring cops to react more quickly or risk losing their mark.
The Bush administration has been trying to streamline investigations. Across the country, 46 Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces funded by the Justice Department supply money and training for state and local police.
The program is expanding, adding more law enforcement agencies and beefing up a “deconfliction” computer system that allows police to share intelligence.
Authorities also occasionally bump into each other online. Not every cop in cyberspace is posing as a 12-year-old. Some investigators, such as postal inspectors, work reverse stings in which they pose as adults trading child pornography or as parents offering young children for sex.
With a central database, everyone will know what everyone else is doing in this vast hunting ground.
Civilians with organizations like Perverted Justice probably won’t have access; many in law enforcement consider them vigilantes. But Dateline is getting huge ratings covering Perverted Justice sting operations, exposing a seedy subculture to millions of Americans.
One man was shown bringing his little boy to a tryst. Another showed up with whipped cream. Another stripped off all his clothes the instant he arrived.
It’s enough to make a viewer wonder just how many of these men are out there. Researchers don’t know, but they have examined who gets caught.
The most recent study by David Finkelhor, who heads the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, shows that 91 percent of suspects are white men with full-time jobs.
“The people that law enforcement are accessing tend to be your white-collar technical people,” says Finkelhor. “Minorities are not as represented in that group.”
Many are married, too, and police have noticed that in most cases, women stand by their husbands throughout a prosecution.
How big a threat are these men? Those caught in stings clearly planned to molest a child, but no one knows how many times Internet predators may have been successful. Many obviously are.
Once stung, defendants offer a number of excuses, according to law enforcement officials. Among the more popular: they were trying to teach a young target about the dangers of the Internet; they were doing their own investigation; they weren’t really going to have sex.
In court, they typically argue that they were entrapped or merely engaging in fantasy. Few defense strategies succeed _ the conviction rate for online stings is nearly 100 percent.
The proliferation of Internet sex cases involving children worries law enforcement, because cyberspace forums provide places where people can find kindred spirits no matter what their passions.
Chat rooms can serve to validate even the most deviant behavior, said Lanning. “No one is telling you it’s wrong,” he said.
The increasing availability of online child pornography _ much of it produced in the states of the former Soviet Union _ also could be lowering inhibitions and driving some men to seek trysts with children.
“Child porn is more accessible, so people are maybe developing a taste for it. There seems to be a market for these images,” said Finkelhor. “But we don’t have any evidence that it is (creating more predators).”
The most complete study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center shows that substantiated cases of sex abuse dropped nearly 50 percent between 1992 and 2004. The rate per 1,000 children also went down, although the figures represent only abuse reported to youth agencies and don’t reflect stranger abductions or most Internet crimes.
Finkelhor said more awareness of child abuse, better parenting, improved social services and more effective law enforcement seem to be making a difference.
“Overall,” he says, “I do think child sex abuse is declining.”
(E-mail Torsten Ove at tove(at)post-gazette.com.)