Garnering the help of a trustworthy teen or young adult helps investigators develop targeted profiles. During his presentation, McGinnis will share information about how he teams with select students in the Criminal Justice Program at Ohio Northern University, who assist him in creating realistic looking MySpace pages.
Chatting up the predator
Undercover online officers must put themselves into a child's mental state to sound believable. McGinnis points to a situation where his 11-year-old son was playing an online game and chatting with someone he believed to be a 15-year-old girl. A cursory review of the chat revealed this person was probably a guy posing as a girl. If an officer does not exhibit the naiveté of a child when working undercover, he will stick out like a sore thumb. McGinnis intends to share information on using Google and other sources to acquire online acronyms to keep chats believable.
Officers must know the law in their states — and these laws vary considerably from state to state. Being familiar with the law helps investigators avoid entrapment allegations later on. Offenders must be the ones to originate any solicitation for sex or entrapment issues may be raised. "You do not seek the predators out," McGinnis explains. "You should not push for sex or a meeting."
An officer may receive many, many hits in a short period of time from a single profile, and it may be tempting to follow every one. However, McGinnis suggests investigators limit themselves to four chats at a time and keeping records of everything they say online. He maintains a sheet of descriptions he's used in every chat. These records contain everything from the profile's breast size, piercings, clothing sizes, birth date, mother's name, and so on. "It can get too confusing, and you can become overwhelmed," he says. "If you put the wrong thing in your chat, you could lose them."
Winning the arrest, but losing the interview
A wrong move in an interrogation or interview dramatically effects its outcome, says Durkin, who with his colleague at Ohio Northern University has used videotaped police interrogations of Internet offenders to devise an interviewing technique for these cases. Durkin and Hundersmarck intend to disclose this method during their talk.
Their research points to a need for investigators to handle interviews and interrogations with kid gloves, setting aside personal views about the criminal acts these individuals have committed.
"I can see some 23-year-old with the ink barely dry on his bachelor's degree wanting to call someone like this a pervert," says Durkin. "But that's the worst thing you can do. You don't want to act judgmental. You want to get a confession. You want to get evidence."
He bases his comment on their assessment of two dozen or so police dialogues with Internet sex offenders. Those who offend against children fear negative evaluations more than men who prey upon adult females, he says. Those who victimize adults may scream and curse at investigators, while pedophiles seek their approval. When that approval is granted, information tends to flow.
These interviews typically begin with the suspect claiming there's been a mistake or misunderstanding, or making excuses, like he heard the child was unattended and wanted to keep him or her safe until the parents returned home. Quick inferences made at the onset, such as whether an individual has an organized or disorganized personality, or is situation preferential, allow officer to adapt the interview accordingly to promote discussion.
Importuning equals solicitation. And under the state of Ohio's importuning law, a felony in the fifth degree, it states an individual cannot solicit a minor for sexual activity. That includes solicitations made in Internet chats. When officers appear to support the offender's actions, most will begin admitting things in small bites. The offender may own up to chatting with the child online, but state he didn't plan to assault her. "He's just admitted to a felony (punishable by up to 18 months in jail depending on the age difference between the perp and the child)," he says. "By letting it proceed in this way the suspect moves from saying 'I'm not a pervert, OK?' to 'I was just lonely and chatting with her.'"