In Lake County, Ill., Wednesday afternoon, Sgt. Rick White had been logged on to the Internet, posing as a child for just two minutes when a man, claiming he was 25, asked for a picture. Three minutes later, the conversation turned to sex.
“He's talking to somebody he believes is a 15-year-old female,” White says.
Across the country, pedophiles have left the playgrounds and arcades for the anonymity of the Internet. One in five kids surveyed by the Justice Department reports receiving unwanted sexual solicitations online.
Lake County Sheriff Gary Del Re says his department alone has prosecuted 200 cases in just eight years.
“They can be businessmen, they can be schoolteachers, they can be camp counselors, they can be sports reporters,” Del Re says.
Catching online predators often involves finding those who traffic in online porn. Two-thirds of the offenders who committed any Internet sex crimes also possessed child porn. And the FBI reports online child porn cases have surged 2,000 percent since 1996.
“The Internet provides an individual, a perpetrator, a potential criminal, the opportunity to hide their identity,” says the FBI’s Raul Roldan. “So they work in a covert environment — so they believe!”
They very often stalk the same Internet chat rooms that kids hang out in, messaging their friends and transmitting their pictures to a whole world of strangers — strangers who are often eager to share graphic pictures or meet the kids they're stalking.
The advice to parents from a variety of Internet child-safety groups:
- Internet-connected computers should be in familyrooms, not bedrooms.
- Use Internet filters and blocks.
- Tell kids not to respond to strangers online.
- Warn them never to give out personal information.
- Monitor who's on your child's instant messaging “buddy list.”
“It's important that they recognize that what's on the computer is not necessarily what it says it is, or what it represents,” says Marsali Hancock of Ikeepsafe.org.
With far more predators online than police can possibly track, experts warn it's up to parents to keep pedophiles off their computers and out of their homes.