March 21, 2009

Rising Number Of Online Sexual Predators Overwhelming

The number of cases involving online child pornography and sexual predators have overwhelmed agents at the Wisconsin Justice Department, the Associated Press reported.

Agents and computer experts over the past decade have gone after hundreds of predators who solicit sex from kids or trade child pornography online.

However, experts say the number of cases involving online sexual predators has quietly multiplied across the nation, with arrests more than quadrupling in 10 years.

Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said he doesn't think very much significant progress has happened yet.

"Our community leaders don't even know how bad the problem is. The general population has no idea," he said.

Mike Myszewski, administrator of the department's Criminal Investigation unit, said the Internet was just gaining traction when an online child porn arrest was made by Wisconsin's Justice Department in 1995.

"The next year saw six arrests. The year after that, 13. By then agency officials realized what the future held," he said.

Myszewski received $300,000 in federal seed money in order to set up one of the first units to combat Internet crimes against children. Some 60 similar task forces now exist nationwide.

The group first focused on "travelers," people who solicit sex from children online and arrange meetings with them. The unit made 18 arrests the first year, 36 in 2000 and 24 in 2001.

Myszewski said that the numbers from units across the country were so encouraging that federal officials thought they could eradicate chat room solicitation within three years.

But Wisconsin arrests soon dropped from 24 in 2001 to 17 in 2002 to 11 in 2003, as Internet access became more accessible and online trading became more covert. Peer-to-peer file sharing software enabled porn purveyors to send photographs and videos directly to each other's computers anywhere in the world within seconds.

Last year, 85,301 reports of child porn and 8,787 reports of online enticement were received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's cyber tip line.

The U.S. Department of Justice said that investigations of Internet crimes against children resulted in 3,000 arrests nationwide in 2008.

Michelle Collins, executive director of the missing children center's exploited child division, said the statistics show how an entire generation has moved online, seeking reinforcement from others with the same abhorrent sexual tastes.

Wisconsin forensic computer analyst Dave Matthews said what is most disturbing is the correlation between child porn and enticement. "Viewing leads to doing," he said.

Msyzewski said the state justice department began training every criminal agent in its Division of Criminal Investigation to help as Wisconsin's unit moved from busting travelers to taking down porn users. Since 2004, there have been around 100 arrests a year.

Supporting the fight against child cyber crime is an expensive venture, however.

The Wisconsin task force's five full-time agents and six full-time computer analysts spend countless hours analyzing hard drives, cataloging tips, writing search warrant affidavits, criminal complaints as well as busting down doors and interviewing children as young as 3.

"We simply don't have enough cops on the street to do the work that needs to be done," said agent Jenniffer Price, who was working 43 cases, all stacked neatly on her Madison office desk.

"We've got so many offenders out there. I just see the balloon getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

Van Hollen, the attorney general, has worked to draw attention to cyber crimes with news releases on each bust, and the state has sponsored 300 public workshops on cyber crime.

The attorney general has also pushed local law enforcement leaders to join the unit as affiliates, creating a statewide net of cyber sleuths and easing the burden on his agents. Seventy-four agencies have joined while hundreds haven't.

So far, the criminal investigations have lured priests, teachers, police officers and even a mayor, as officers allegedly engaged in a conversation with Racine Mayor Gary Becker. Becker has since resigned and faces eight felony counts. He pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

"When you're a child, you shouldn't have to be exposed to this stuff," said Eric Szatkowski, a Wisconsin Justice Department special agent.


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