Hunting Sexual Predators

Nov. 8, 2006
Now,more that ever, police departments need to know who is lurking in the shadows of internet chat rooms.

U.S. Department of Justice Press Release, Thursday, November 2, 2006: MORE THAN 1,600 SEX OFFENDER ARRESTS BY U.S. MARSHALS' "OPERATION FALCON III"

WASHINGTON--Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) Director John F. Clark today announced that a seven-day nationally coordinated fugitive roundup led by the USMS and hundreds of partners from state, local and other federal agencies led to the arrests of 10,773 fugitives. Among those arrested during Operation FALCON III were 1,659 fugitive sex offenders, the largest number ever captured in a single law enforcement effort.

Now, this is really scary. Over 10% of all the fugitives that were arrested last week were sex offenders! This led me to think about our changing society. Were there this many perverts around in the 1960s? 80s? My first collar as a rookie at the NYPD was a "dicky waver" in front of the Four Seasons Restaurant on E. 52nd Street, but certainly 10 % of all my collars were not perverts, were they? Well, maybe they were, but they just didn't have the "kiddy superstore" that today's predators have: the internet chat rooms.

Until this week, I had never visited an internet chat room. Sure, I have been using computers for three decades now, and like most of you, I would be totally lost without access to my e-mail accounts. Yeah, I use Instant Messenger (IM), but I limit my contacts to family and close friends. Why would I want to go to a chat room? I already know enough people that I don't want to talk to. Why talk to strangers? I use the word "talk" very loosely here. Trying to read what is being said in a chat room is like trying to learn Mandarin Chinese. Acronyms flow like water over the Niagara Falls. Some acronyms are simple enough for me to comprehend, like "FYI" meaning "For Your Information." Others require a learning curve, such as "GMTA" (Great Minds Think Alike), or "PMJI" (Pardon Me for Jumping In).

Chat rooms also seem very crowded and chaotic. It's like what I remember the CB radio to be--a lot people breaking into others' conversations at the click of a button, and the words "Breaker 19, this is Tiny Tom. Anyone out there?" The chat rooms that I visited this week were very much the same. I saw lots of people typing at the same time, about different things, and communicating (I think) with multiple people whom they don't know. I found it very hard to figure out who was talking to whom, and about what.

Then it hit me. I had read many stories in my local newspaper about people meeting online, and then getting married. Those were the good stories. The one's that make you smile. I also remembered reading, watching TV news, and hearing radio news stories about kids, and even adults being murdered, raped, and otherwise abused by predators that found them through the Internet. Yes, chat rooms can be a candy store for sexual predators. Suddenly, some of those simple acronyms began to take on a sinister meaning. I started to explore this new language and discovered some of the following terms:

  • A/S/L: age/sex/location
  • POS: parent over shoulder
  • PIR: parent in room
  • WYRN: what's your real name
  • F2F: face to face
  • MIRL: meet in real life

These terms are not too disturbing if the chat is actually between two 15-year-olds, but how about between a 15-year-old girl and a 30-year-old man posing as a 15-year-old girl, using a chat room name of "littlelucy"? This is a disturbing picture, but one that plays itself out all over the country, hundreds of times every day.

Almost every police department in the country now has a squad that deals with online sexual predators. There have been many successes in recent years. People from all walks of life have been arrested for arranging and traveling to meetings with 14-year-old girls or boys for the purpose of having sex. These people were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, schoolteachers, public servants, etc., but they all had something in common; they were sexual predators who thought that they had arranged to meet a child at the mall, but instead were greeted by police detectives.

As with most other fields, technology has now provided law enforcement with another tool to assist in the identification and apprehension of online predators. The "Online Predator Profiling System" or OPPS is a database developed by a company called Adzone Research, Inc.

Dan Wasserman, the managing director of Adzone, told me that OPPS

"is a database of chat rooms that our police consultants directed us to monitor specifically, because they have a preponderance of illicit activity. The data has been collected for over 18 months and is extremely easy to use via online access. OPPS has been successfully deployed in the Greater DC, New York, and Chicago areas, as well as throughout Florida and Texas. And, it has been used for other crimes, including homicide and gang activity."

Wasserman set up a demo for me and I gave the database a pretty good look. Miraculously, I could set search date parameters going back in time to the beginning of their operation, and search for certain key words or disturbing acronyms, such as the ones above. I was able to see who had been using these terms, and whom they had been speaking with. Yes, most of what I saw were innocent conversations, yet the potential of what I was seeing was staggering. There was little doubt in my mind that even a novice like myself would be able to use this database to identify predators.

I asked Wasserman about the cost of the database. He told me,

"For the past year the company has been marketing OPPS on an annual license basis, priced at $999. But, this week AdZone announced "InstantOPPS," which is access to the full database for 24 hours at only $49.95!"

So, what kind of track record does the Online Predator Profiling System have? Wasserman told me,

"It's only six months since we launched OPPS, and we have data for the men arrested as a result of Dateline NBC's 'To Catch a Predator' series. These men were from three dispersed jurisdictions: Ohio, Colorado, and now Florida. TV programs like 'To Catch a Predator' and 'Americas Most Wanted' not only keeps the predator problem in the public eye; they also help us validate the effectiveness of OPPS. Even though we capture information on thousands of online conversations, being able to use this public information gives us a chance to get the word out about how effective OPPS truly is."

Last week's arrest of 1600 sexual predators by the U.S. Marshals Service may prove to be another milestone, or proving ground for the OPPS system. If one of these accused predators claims that he is innocent, or the he's never done anything like this before, there may now be an electronic "paper trail." According to Wasserman, "Now there is a tool that could set the record straight and prove a former or ongoing 'course of conduct.'"

With the marketing of the new Instant OPPS program, Wasserman hopes to make the database available to small departments with limited budgets. This tool will now also be available to non-law enforcement investigators, journalists, and anyone else who is willing to use their credit card to charge the $49.95 daily usage fee. (See website link below)

As investigators, we should be aware of new and innovative tools that can assist us. But, we are more than just investigators. We are also parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, mentors, etc. The children that we know all use the internet, making them potential victims for these predators. We all need to know about the dangers of chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail, and web sites. There are also nationwide and statewide sexual predator lists that you should be aware of. Below are some links to web sites that can help you protect your loved ones, and alert you about predators who live or move into your communities.

Most states now have their own registries. The Florida sexual predator database will not only provide photos, pedigree, and their sex predator history, but they even will produce information about the predator's registered vehicle. Visit the Florida list below, or your own state's database to see what is available.

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