Spinning a Tale to Catch Online Predators

Enforcement Expo speakers to detail the nuances of undercover Internet investigations and predator interviews/interrogations

Enforcement Expo speakers to detail the nuances of undercover Internet investigations and predator interviews/interrogations

Like a spider that spins a web of silk to catch its prey, law enforcement officers are weaving their own net on the World Wide Web to snare Internet predators. But much like the intricate pattern of a spider's web, Internet investigations are not as simple as they seem. Investigators must spin elaborate designs of their own to be effective.

If an investigator's online persona doesn't ring true to a predator he may not get a hit. His chats, his MySpace page, and Yahoo profiles must tell the tale of the kid he portrays. Likewise, missteps made by the investigator lacking familiarity in the nuances of interviewing sex offenders can hinder an investigation.

Poised to address these topics at Enforcement Expo in Cincinnati, Ohio, July 11-12, are Rick McGinnis, who recently joined the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office in its Ohio Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force; Keith Durkin, who's studied and written about Internet deviancy; and Steve Hundersmarck, a retired law enforcement officer with more than 20 years of service who teamed with Durkin to study police interviews of Internet sex offenders. McGinnis will speak at 8:30 a.m. July 11 while Durkin and Hundersmarck, chair of the Department of Psychology and Sociology and assistant professor of psychology and criminal justice at Ohio Northern University respectively, are slated to talk at 3 p.m.

The undercover online profile
McGinnis received the FBI's Advanced Innocent Images and ICAC training in his role as an Ada (Ohio) Police Department patrolman. He spent two years establishing undercover Internet identities, sometimes juggling as many as four profiles at a time, while scouting the Internet for sexual predators and other criminals.

Some dead giveaways make predators wary of a profile. For instance, a defendant once commented at trial that he debated the legitimacy of McGinnis' profile because he only listed four friends on his MySpace page. The same defendant claimed he also the questioned his 14-year-old girl identity because the site seemed plain and more like that of a boy.

NBC Dateline's "To Catch a Predator" programs have definitely toughened the road for investigators working undercover online, McGinnis adds. Since these shows aired, predators have accused him of being a cop several times. He relies on reverse psychology to turn it around, saying something like, "I hate cops. There's a cop who lives next door to me and he's always watching me."

McGinnis plans to present information on what makes a good profile, using a profile to your advantage, what predators seek in a profile, and employing social networking sites such as MySpace to support an online identity.

Investigators' profiles should show weakness as predators seek out vulnerable kids. A child who's an A or B student, for instance, may not be as appealing as one who's failing classes. The same applies to students involved in many extracurricular activities versus none at all. A child from a single-parent family may appear weaker than a kid being raised in a traditional family.

"Predators groom the child," he explains. "They look to mold the child to them." There are many ways they do this. Showing empathy to the youth's struggle is but one method. If a child tells the predator he's in trouble with his parents for poor grades, he might say, "I know you can do better, but cut yourself some slack. I failed classes too." Or if the kid says, "My mom's a rag. She made me get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning to wash dishes because I didn't do them the night before," it opens the door for the predator to say "that's not fair of your mother to do that." The wise investigator highlights the profile's hardships during a chat.

Predators request pictures. The savvy investigator working undercover online possesses pictures of the individuals he is pretending to be. "I had one picture on my MySpace page and was always getting asked why I didn't have more," McGinnis says.

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