Spinning a Tale to Catch Online Predators

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.

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.'"

Often suspects deny their involvement by blaming a younger brother or friend for the chats on their computer. On one interview tape, the suspect used a library computer to chat but claimed a "big black dude, named Cee" operated his computer when he went to the bathroom. It's also common for suspects to deny knowing the individual's age, Durkin adds. They might say, "What do you mean she's 14? I thought she was 41."

An investigator privy to the information in the chats may find it tough to overlook this deceit. But they need to stay neutral, cautions Durkin, who shares the experiences of a retired investigator who spent 20 years in law enforcement. When this investigator had enough, he would say, "I'm hottgurl_14. You were chatting with me for the last two months" and suspects quickly invoked their right for an attorney.

"There are better ways to do it," Durkin says.

The reviewed tapes include everything from a high-profile national case involving a coroner/physician's impropriety to repeat offenders. While all the investigators on the tapes seemed highly professional, Durkin notes he was most impressed with an investigator who always wore street clothes to the interview and came across very nonjudgmental. He built a rapport with the individual by saying things like, "I have a computer and I have some stuff on it that my wife probably wouldn't want me looking at" or "I'm not judging you, man. I am just trying to get your end of the story so we can get this cleared up." He opened doors for discussion by easing the suspect's discomfort. The kinship this investigator expressed in one tape prompted the suspect, when asked if he had any images of young girls on his computer to answer, "Well not of 9- or 10-year-olds or anything like that." He basically admitted to having photos of older teens. A subsequent search of the suspect's computer turned up child porn.

All sex crimes begin with a fantasy but for investigators to get inside the suspect's head and prove their guilt, they need to act more friend then foe. "There's no doubt this stuff can be disturbing," Durkin explains. "But we need to teach officers to suppress those feelings in interviews and interrogations."

Sexual predators weave a tangled web in Internet chats and police interviews, and investigators can become tangled in its sticky threads. The knowledge imparted by these Enforcement Expo speakers can help free investigators to make these cases.

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