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With the ever-increasing usage of social networking sites and messaging applications, child sex offenders CSOs now can have instantaneous virtual access to children. In response, the U. What do these online undercover operations look like? They can involve different approaches on a variety of platforms. Some are proactive, where law enforcement officers impersonate or an adult who has access to a young person, to apprehend suspects before they offend.
However, they also can be reactive, where officers intervene in an undercover capacity after a suspect solicits online. Most people cannot imagine conversing with someone about having sex with. So, what makes an ideal online undercover in these types of operations?
You have to want to catch the really bad guy. They were off work. This is when they were obviously away from family, or they were in an area where they felt comfortable traveling to have sex with a kid….
Interviewed officers emphasized the need to chat both regularly and outside normal working hours. CSOs do not think about offending against only during the business hours of a. Their all-consuming desire to have sex with often in compulsive and persistent interaction with the undercover.
In return, online undercovers must act as if they constantly think of sex with children, as well. While interviewees did not claim to check their phone at all hours, they stressed the importance of sending messages during nonworking hours to not only show engagement but also combat the nearly inevitable future allegation of being law enforcement.
Additionally, one interviewee highlighted the importance of having managerial support to chat and stay focused on it. While some chats last only hours, others can continue for weeks, if not months or years. Undercovers also must remember that just because a CSO does not show up to the first scheduled meet or ceases contact altogether, this does not mean that the investigative avenue no longer exists. Patience and commitment are needed, and without agency support it can prove difficult to devote the necessary time to regularly chat.
Multiple interviewees emphasized the value in having patience and building a relationship with CSOs who travel. In the current climate, with many well-meaning efforts looking to combat this crime problem, ranging from a well-known network television show to private watchdog groups, CSOs may be skeptical or hesitant to travel until they feel that an encounter will be real.
As one officer noted, like any relationship, trust is built through time and exposure, to include talking about common interests beyond sex with children. Unlike a sting that can occur in a matter of hours, some chats truly can reflect the progression of a relationship and last months to years before the meet occurs.
You have to have a foundation first…. Interviewees identified the importance of being believable and responding with legitimacy, even to the most grotesque of comments from CSOs.
According to one officer, undercovers can establish believability well before the chat commences through building their presence on various social media platforms and thoroughly understanding their online persona. It contained pertinent information about an online persona describing a mom with access to children that made it seem authentic. To provide believable and legitimate responses, interviewees also highlighted the value in asking a lot of questions and being willing to learn more about CSO behavior.
Incorporating knowledge gained through prior chatting experience, in-person interviews with CSOs, training, and books and materials available about this type of offender helps an online undercover gain credibility with a CSO. This quality helped them as online undercovers because they sometimes spoke with CSOs for hours. The skill to quickly analyze not only what the online undercover should say but also the impact it will have on both the offender and the investigation was noted as especially critical. For example, law enforcement officers who chatted as used different vernacular than those chatting as adults.
When interviewees chatted as an adult, they mirrored the chatting style of offenders, such as not using vulgar language when the CSO refrained from doing so. Interviewees stressed that effective undercover officers recognize the nuances of this particular violation, often charged in federal court under Coercion and Enticement, 18 U. Understanding the necessary elements to an offense is key for a successful prosecution, along with the meticulous preservation of electronic communication evidence.
Similar to the way a search warrant allows investigators to collect evidence and intelligence, it is important to view chatting through the lens of yet another platform to collect intelligence for an investigation. Similar to this officer, many interviewees said that they often chatted with multiple suspects at one time who each expressed a desire to sexually offend against. Different reasons exist why the CSOs ultimately never traveled, ranging from only wanting to engage in fantasy-based chat about committing such an act to ceasing all communication for no apparent reason after arranging to travel.
Naturally, this can discourage undercovers because not only do they invest ample time and effort into the investigations but they then worry that the CSO still seeks to offend againstunbeknownst to any law enforcement.
With this in mind, interviewees emphasized the importance of both accepting failure and, more important, enjoying the successes! Whether law enforcement officers have arrested 3 or CSOs who traveled, they must remember that they helped keep children safe. The work of an online undercover, especially those conversing with suspects who target one of the most vulnerable populations, is emotionally demanding and time-consuming.
The ability to chat regularly, build relationships, respond with credibility and legitimacy, improvise on the spot, understand the violation, and accept failure while enjoying the successes is critical to success as an online undercover.
August 6, Undercover Chatting with Child Sex Offenders. By Matthew J. Fowler, Kristen A. Lybert, M. Owens, M. Waterfield, M. Conclusion The work of an online undercover, especially those conversing with suspects who target one of the most vulnerable populations, is emotionally demanding and time-consuming. Endnotes 1 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are examples of social networking sites, while Kik and WhatsApp represent two messaging applications.
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