Digital kids in danger

     Unbeknownst to Katie, John was wanted on the East Coast for raping a 13-year-old girl when he met her online in 2002.

     During the months that 15-year-old Katie Canton and 22-year-old John were hiding their "love" affair, John was careful to provide phone cards to keep his number off the family phone bill. He later coached Katie on exactly what to tell her parents so they wouldn't be suspicious of their "friendship."

     Despite prominent media attention tackling the issue, instances of adults using the Internet to sexually solicit children continually top news headlines; and following in the Internet's technologically perilous footsteps are cell phones.

     Experts say the hot topic on technology and pedophiles has shifted from the Internet to cell phones. Due to the alarming access predators are afforded when Internet use and portable communications devices are combined, law enforcement and sex crime specialists are growing increasingly concerned. Potential sex predators use these devices to communicate with kids, gain their trust and groom them for sexual exploitation. Digital-age kids are more vulnerable than ever because pedophiles now have a direct, unfettered and unmonitored avenue to them.

The difference in cell phones and computers

     Pedophiles are getting wise to the barricades that parents and police are building between kids and predators online. In order to circumvent parental monitoring and police intervention, today's sexual predators are turning to the ever-evolving cell phones that parents provide their offspring, ironically, to keep them safer.

     Kory Nelson, an assistant city attorney in Denver, Colorado, who has worked in the City Prosecution and Enforcement Section for 18 years, says education and safety practices are in a race to catch up with technology.

     "Parents don't perceive [the cell phone] as being a dangerous item in which people can text their children or coax them into a bad situation," Nelson says. "That can lead to a ripe opportunity for somebody who wants to lure a child."

     Bob Lotter, CEO of eAgency, a mobile-solution software company based in Newport Beach, California, agrees. "We already know what the problem is with the Internet," Lotter says. "That's well understood. It gets a lot of discussion and there are many kinds of solutions. [But] take these problems from the Internet, put them on a phone and then, because the phone is small and because the child has it with them wherever they are, most of the use is unsupervised."

     There are different methodologies in the Internet world to protect kids — the primary lines of defense are to put the computer in a place where parents can keep an eye out or to install software that monitors all of the activity on the computer. Experts agree that the solutions to child safety issues online do not readily lend themselves to cell phones, due to the portability and subsequent privacy mobile devices provide. However, eAgency has developed and begun marketing a commercial software application that allows parents to monitor their child's communications remotely. Lotter explains that a child with a cell phone has access to millions of strangers — and strangers have access to them. Adding to the issue is the reality that with many cell phone models today, children can do virtually anything they can with a computer, including surfing the 'net, buying things, downloading music and taking and sending pictures.

     Radar works as an installed application on the child's phone, which monitors all communication — in and out — including phone calls, text messages, e-mails and pictures. A copy of that communication is sent to eAgency's server in real time and stored. Parents gain access to the information through a Web site, and the data also can be used later as evidence.

     Radar technology is not just for civilian consumers. The company also works with law enforcement on cases involving crimes against children, for which Lotter says the company does not charge a fee. He explains that the company currently works with law enforcement, typically on a case-by-case basis, applying the technology as needed for various crimes. In addition, eAgency has a pilot program underway with law enforcement officials in Colorado Springs, Colorado, working with parents to quantify the harmful ways phones are used against children and how police and Radar can be employed to eradicate and prevent those incidents.

     Nelson says a product like Radar enables parents to monitor their children's cell phone use much as they currently examine their Internet usage — and for the same reasons. The City of Denver is looking into ways to apply Radar software with adults as well. Nelson says they would like to use phones in domestic violence cases where harassment is a problem. Additionally, eAgency is exploring ways in which its technology could used by law enforcement and governmental agencies to monitor and collect information, for example, with confidential informants.

Unfettered access

     All of the experts involved in this story cited accessibility as the No. 1 challenge that cell phones add to the pre-existing problem with kids and the Internet. Canton, now a 22-year-old college student in San Francisco, California, can look back and identify what John did to groom her without raising any red flags. Their relationship was sustained with communication though the Internet and over her family's home phone.

     "If I had had a cell phone, John would have probably talked to me even more than he did, because he could have called me in the middle of school," Canton says. "I could have ditched class to talk to him. He could have called me 24/7, day or night. We didn't have that sort of availability, but still we had enough time to develop a relationship. That's what scares me about this: Most cell phones have all the capabilities a computer has, or close to it. So maybe Mom and Dad say it's time to go to bed, but it's 3 in the morning and the kid's in bed on their cell phone, browsing the Internet."

     Jeffery Brown, an investigator with the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department says he sees more than a handful of cases involving cell phones and sex crimes against minors come across his desk every month. He says oftentimes the crime is uncovered by a parent accidentally, only after the child has had a great deal of communication with the predator. He also said it's not uncommon for predators to supply children with a cell phone.

     "The way some of our cases come about is a parent says, 'Hey, I've discovered my kid's got a cell phone'," Brown says. "By the time this perpetrator has given the kid a cell phone, it's pretty deep. That kid is generally going to be in love and it's very difficult to break that kid away."

     In other cases, Brown reveals, a parent will find printed e-mails, pictures of body parts on cell phones or in e-mails, and then they discover this individual has been texting the child's phone every day.

     But Canton didn't have a cell phone, and so her interaction with John remained linked to semi-controllable circumstances; her landline telephone and computer time controlled by her parents. Still, the teen was slowly groomed by John through gifts and attention that made her feel special. Eventually, he told her he loved her and wanted to marry her, and as sex crime investigators need to see, John introduced sex into their conversations.

     It turns out John was a child predator living in West Virginia, who used the same grooming tactics — building rapport via Internet and telephone, sending gifts and declarations of love — to introduce sex and sexually charged communication with several girls, including Canton and a 13-year-old girl in West Virginia. Canton believes that because the girl in West Virginia lived closer, he chose to pursue her first. But once Canton and her family learned who John really was, Canton realized how much he actually knew about her. It was a nerve-wracking time while the FBI searched for the perpetrator, who was wanted for rape, because it was found that he had purchased a plane ticket to Canton's hometown. John was apprehended, and Canton was subpoenaed and later flew to West Virginia to testify against him. At the trial she was asked to read explicit e-mails aloud in the courtroom for the jury.

An alarming trend

     In the time since John was tried and sentenced in 2003, the trends in technology and predation have adapted to include cell phones, which more directly link child predators to their prey. Similar to John's methods of trust building and doting, only six years after Canton's case, predators today are utilizing phones to their benefit.

     Confirming this most recent trend are nationally reported cases of adults using cell phones to groom kids, such as the Pennsylvania case where phy-ed teacher Beth Ann Chester is accused of transmitting explicit text messages and photos, which culminated with the 26-year-old teacher allegedly having sex with a 14-year-old student. In Nebraska, another teacher was accused of having sex with a former student, who was 13. In Washington, a sports coach pleaded guilty in February to charges that resulted from exchanging explicit pictures with a student. Brown, a 21-year veteran of the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department, has spent eight years in the sex crimes division of Orange County's Family Protection unit. He believes that as cell phones get more sophisticated, they are to become equally as dangerous as computers on the Internet — in fact, potentially more so than computers.

     "Over the last few years, the technology with cell phones has come up so much and the capabilities mimic computers" Brown says. "In my era, the phone was in the kitchen on a cord, and if you were on the phone, someone would know. Now [kids'] cell phones are in their rooms and most parents don't realize what their kids do and who they talk to either online or on the cell phone."

Dealing with Mom and Dad

     "The hardest thing, I have to do, hands down, is deal with parents," Brown says. "I can't really blame a victims' parents. People say, 'We'll put the computer in a common location.' That just doesn't work. We've proved that many, many times." Brown explains that when parents put the computer in a common location, it creates a false sense of security. And when mobile communication devices are added to the mix, Lotter and Brown say that without software intervention, parents won't be able to adequately protect their kids.

     "Cell phones just increase availability. Kids can talk to people online without their parents knowing," Canton warns. "It takes away a lot of parental control. Parents can put the computer in a certain room, they can limit the hours, they can check up on them, but kids can be up all night on their cell phone."

     Brown, who also gives presentations on Internet safety in his community and teaches sex crimes at the Orange County Sheriff's Academy, says the only way to safeguard children and prevent predatory harm is monitoring their activities with software like eBlaster by SpectorSoft for computer monitoring and eAgency's Radar for cell phones.

Policing today's cell crimes

     Brown sees the results of cell phone use in his office every day. But for an agency of 2,500-sworn-officers strong, coming across high-tech crimes isn't all that surprising. However, with the increasing popularity of cell phones and their capabilities, Brown only sees the frequency of cell-based crimes rising.

     "I would say that if [agencies] don't address [cell phone crime] now, they need to, because it's certainly not going away," Brown suggests. "[Phones] are just getting more and more sophisticated. And sooner or later —probably sooner — [police departments] will be addressing crimes that were either made or furthered with a cell phone.

     (See "Forensic solutions for cell phones" on Page 14 for information on data extraction devices.)

     Experts agree that until cell phones are addressed as a danger to the digital-age kid, they will remain susceptible to predatory grooming via mobile phones. And whether or not law enforcement or parents realize it, cell phones have become the predator's solution to problems with grooming in the Internet medium.

     Nelson warns, "The cell phone is seen as a window that's open. While the front door may be locked, there's a way around it to the side window."

How I met a predator

     Katie Canton had met John in an Internet chat room when she was 15. In less than an hour of their first online communication, Canton was on the phone chatting with John, using a phone card number he provided her. It didn't take long after that for him to build enough trust to get her home number. Eventually, through daily conversations on the phone and the Internet, John was able to collect revealing details about her life: her high school, hangouts and her address. For Canton, a teen growing up in the early years of the Internet boom, the Internet represented a window for self expression and an avenue to explore curiosities, and predators like John readily exploit curious kids and teens with those needs. According to Canton, cell phones push curious kids far from the watchful eye of the parent. If the Internet is the wading pool, then cell phones are the deep end, and without a lifeguard, consequences of this type of child's play remain murky.

     Katie Canton, now 22, is a dynamic speaker and presenter for school-age kids about the dangers of the Internet, using her personal experience as a cautionary tale. Through her interaction with today's digital kid and her own brush with a predator, she candidly offers her outlook on the risks technologies create for children.

     "It scares me. It's all happening so fast," Canton says. "The world kids are growing up in changes so quickly that now, I can have everything on my computer in my palm, in my pocket." Canton believes that for all of the good technology does, it also offers a lot of opportunities for potential harm, especially to youngsters. She says Web sites like MySpace and chat room profiles combined with the digital devices kids carry with them make a predator's work all that much easier.

     Canton works with Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit organization which aims to educate today's kids about making smart decisions online. When she speaks to teens, she tells them bluntly that they are easy targets. "It's one-stop shopping for predators," she warns. "[Predators] will know everything they need to say to be your best friend within five minutes just by looking at your page."

     It was ultimately law enforcement that aided in the intervention between Canton and John. A friend of Canton's parents, a police officer in California, suggested that Canton play a game called "Missing," which made her realize her online boyfriend, John, was grooming her for sex. The officer followed up on Canton's online friend and discovered there was an ongoing rape investigation in which John was the main suspect and the victim a 13-year-old girl on the other side of the nation.

     Thanks in part to Canton's testimony, John was ultimately convicted in the West Virginia case.

Forensic solutions for cell phones

     Extracting data from mobile devices is an increasingly vital tool in criminal investigations. Cell phone forensic tools have evolved along with advancing phones to be more compact and portable, providing a data extraction solution for departments of all sizes and officers of all specialties.

     Most of the recent adaptations lean toward more user-friendly models and come with software to assist officers in decoding cell phone data they extract, then packaging it in an evidential manner that can be used in the case down the road.

     The Orem, Utah-based forensic software company, Paraben Corp., plans to release its CSI Stick this month, says its CEO and co-founder Amber Schroader. This gadget is about the same size as a standard thumb drive, that can extract all of the active files on Motorola and Samsung models and transfer them to a PC. The device works with a software package, Device Seizure Lite (DS Lite), that acts as an interpret to the phone data.

     "The whole idea behind it was that we take the ability to gather from cell phones in a forensically sound manner and give it to people who don't naturally deal with computers," Schroader says. "Forensics for the masses so to speak."

     Paraben's goal with the CSI Stick was to market a device that anyone could use and make it so forensics didn't have to be stuck in a lab anymore. This tool can be used in the field and still maintain all the rules so users can extract court-approved, quality evidence.

     The CSI Stick currently supports approximately 300 phone models and is currently developing support for LG and Nokia models.

     Linda Davis, director of marketing for Logicube, a media duplication solution company based out of Chatsworth, California, says the CellDEK TEK was recently introduced to the digital forensic market. This data extraction unit is similar to Logicube's CellDEK—released in 2005 — however it allows investigators to use their own laptop or desktop PC, making it a scalable solution that can also be used on scene. A unique feature of the device is its light-up adapters. Investigators using this unit and software will have a visual cue once they've selected the model they're working with from the program, the corresponding adapter illuminates for efficient and easy use.

     "A lot of devices just have a list you have to refer to or you may have a jumble of adapters," Davis explains. "With CellDEK and CellDEK TEK, it automatically detects which adaptor you need. So that saves a lot of time, especially if you're in the field trying to capture information."

     The CellDEK TEK supports approximately 950 phones, Davis says, and the company offers a subscription option, which updates its software and adapters quarterly to support the latest cell phones.