The changing face of the Internet is reflected how sexual predators are pursuing their victims across cyberspace.
A few years ago, Internet predators sought their victims in chat rooms, hoping for a face-to-face meeting. Today they’re trolling social network sites, online classified sites and using instant messaging.
“We’re seeing a number of these cases switching over from computer to cellphones, that’s really where the technology is going,” Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Investigator D.J. Downie said. “Five to six years ago we trained for chat rooms. Nowadays, chat rooms are almost obsolete. It’s instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter — all the things happening with mobile devices.”
That change was evident last week, as Downie’s work following up on a potential predator on Craigslist resulted in criminal charges of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of possessing pornographic work against a Willmar man.
The investigation started about seven months ago, when Downie was notified by the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a division of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and which the sheriff’s department is an affiliate, to monitor a posting on Craigslist. Downie found the message from the Willmar man, who wrote that he was looking for younger people. Downie, posing as a 13-year-old girl, chatted with the man, who eventually sent porno-graphic images to the investigator.
“There’s a dark side to Craigslist and many people aren’t aware of it,” Downie said.
Downie said Internet investigators are trained to not turn people into predators or use language to entrap them.
“Our object in doing these undercover investigation is to place ourselves in between the predator and the real child,” Downie said. “In this case, we went out and felt we successfully did that and, unfortunately, there was a real child being victimized at the same time.”
Downie put about 40 hours into the investigation, which included chatting with the suspect, getting warrants in Willmar, interviewing the suspect and examining his computer and cellphone. Downie’s training and work with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is funded through grants from the BCA.
A few years ago, such an arrest might not have been possible. Up until the Legislature changed state laws, a predator would have to travel to meet with a victim before an arrest could be made. Now it’s against the law for any adult to talk with someone they believe to be a minor under the age of 16 about things of a sexual nature.
The task force also tracks peer-to-peer exchange of pornographic images involving minors. Downie said any image uploaded to a peer-to-peer site is tagged with numerical value identification. Investigators, who know the numerical value of child pornography files offered, can search for that identification to see where the files are being shared. It’s the kind of search that led to the conviction of Baxter resident Steven Augustinack on 18 counts of felony possession of pornographic computer videos involving a minor.
Sexting also has become a concern, he said. Sexting usually involves minors sending illicit or pornographic materials to each other on the Internet or through a cellphone. Downie said most don’t realize that once an imagine is on the Internet there’s no taking it back, and that such work involving someone under 18 is illegal to possess.
A misconception, Downie said, is that investigators will go after anyone for anything, even if it was an accident that led to illegal images ending up on someone’s computer.
“We’re looking at a person’s intent as well, we’re looking at some overt act that said they knew it was there and intended to possess it,” he said.
Another tool that’s become useful in investigating Internet pornography crimes has been GPS tags on photos. That information allows investigators to know where a crime was committed but it also has a negative side in that it lets predators know where a photo was taken, Downie said.
The best prevention, Downie said, is for parents to take an active role in monitoring their children’s Internet activity and cellphone use, know their passwords and actually have a child help set up a social network account so the parents know their child’s computer skills.
Downie said successful investigations don’t belong to one agency but to the work of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which assists law enforcement across the state and encourages work between the agencies. Both the Brainerd and Baxter police departments have trained in such investigations, he added.
The best compliment Downie said he gets is when he’s working undercover and a predator is acting paranoid that he’s a cop. He said he has yet to chat while undercover and not be asked if he’s a cop.
“The best way to prevent our kids from being victimized on the Internet is to have everyone out there think they’re being watched, so they don’t continue to prey on these kids,” Downie said. “It means we’re doing our job right.”
Crow Wing County Sheriff Todd Dahl said that’s the information he wants out in the public — that investigators are monitoring illicit Internet sites.
“(Predators) might not think they’re being watched, but they are,” Dahl said.
He credited Downie, Sheriff’s Investigator Gary Fagerman and the Willmar Police for the work leading to the arrest of the Willmar man.
“This was not just a brief thing. It was a very in-depth investigation and I’m proud of the work they’re done and continue to do
“Not every cop can do what (Downie) does. It’s very specialized, it’s very time consuming and it obviously weighs on him personally and professionally. There’s a lot of stress involved, no doubt about it. I know I can’t do what he does. He’s a huge asset to our office and to the state.”
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.