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Posted April 30, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Police officers work to keep children safe on the Internet
Elizabeth Smoot -- Daily Staff Writer
J. C. Galbreath's mission is to make the Internet safer for children. Galbreath is a tough investigator for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigations Division, but on a recent March afternoon, he took on the persona of a bored teenage girl looking for someone to talk to in a chat room.
Within seconds after logging on to an office computer, multiple chat messages appear on the screen from men asking personal information from the teen. Galbreath wasn't shocked. A member of the Northern Virginia-D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, Galbreath is one of a number of law enforcement investigators charged with ferreting out online predators of children. During a typical week this winter, 1,901 incidents of child sexual exploitation were reported to the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children's CyberTipline.
"We find there are not a lot of parents monitoring their child as much as they should," Galbreath says. "Essentially, when you're online, you're open to the world."
The growing presence of children on the Internet has led to stepped-up law enforcement efforts to keep them safe. Keeping up with those dangers, however, is a daunting task.
"There are so many ways for the bad guys to have access." said Investigator Tim R. Juergens, also with the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and member of the task force. "It's about uncontrollable for a parent."
About one in seven youth ages 10 to 17 have received an unwanted online sexual solicitation, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
Posing as the young girl, Galbreath receives messages asking the teen for her name, the color of her hair and eyes, how tall she is. Galbreath makes up the details. Some determine she's too young and stop chatting, others ask a few more questions; one tells her she has a beautiful name. Even when they find out she's 14, men ranging in age from 24 to 37 continue to chat with her. Some request pictures.
At one point, a chat message gets the attention of Galbreath and Karen H. Dew, a detective with the Winchester Police Department and a fellow member of the task force. By chance, even though it's not a local chat room, the man tells the teen he lives in the Winchester area, just a few miles from the office. The conversation, initiated for a reporter's benefit, is conducted in the abbreviated language and sloppy spelling typical of chat rooms:
Girl: How old r u
Three times, the investigators close out the chat only to have the man's messages pop back up on the screen. Eventually they sign off.
"Who's to say what could happen if there was a real child on their porch and he would come by," Galbreath says. "It shows how easy it is for child to be involved in a chat."
"It's important not to meet up with anyone they meet on a site since people may not be who they say they are," he adds.
Just like Galbreath and Dew, Gary W. Reynolds spent much of his career pretending to be someone decades younger in an effort to find online predators and build cases against them. Reynolds is the executive director of the Safe Surfin' Foundation and former Winchester city police chief. He works with the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, one of the first 10 agencies in the U.S. to develop a cybercrimes unit in 1997. During his years investigating building cases against online predators by posing as a teen, he has arrested college professors, ministers, teachers and Scout volunteers. Arrests have led to convictions in all but one case. That one involved a diplomat who has since left the country.
Predators, he said, are impossible to spot. "The real challenge for law enforcement is to identify those (predators) we don't know about. Oftentimes, people don't report this to police," because of embarrassment.
In the past year, the use of cell phones has created a new phenomenon called sexting, which has gained a lot of attention nationwide. Teens, and children even younger, are taking sexually explicit pictures of themselves and transferring them electronically, mainly via their phones. People involved in this crime can be charged with possession of child pornography with intent to distribute and with electronic solicitation. These are felony charges with punishment of five to 20 years in prison in Virginia.
Lawrence L. Muir Jr., a Virginia state assistant attorney general in the computer crime division, travels the state talking with parents, kids and school administrators. During a recent trip to Winchester, he mentioned that he only began including sexting in his presentation a month ago. According to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy, 22 percent of teen girls and 18 percent of teen boys say they have sent or posted a seminude or nude photo or video of themselves online.
"This is a dangerous new trend growing among teens, he says.
The punishment can be severe. In March, two Spotsylvania County teens were charged with sexting and possession of child pornography and electronic solicitation. Authorities allege they asked underage girls ranging in age from 12-16 to take explicit pictures of themselves on their cell phones and then text them to the suspects, who police believe sent the photos to other people.
"These kids just think they're being dumb. They don't realize they're being dumb felons," Muir says.
"We're finding most sexting cases start within a relationship," Galbreath says. "It can take only a matter of minutes to distribute it around the world."
Reynolds urges parents to monitor their children's cell phone usage. "Just as you would check their drawers, you should check pictures," he says. He teaches parents to black out the lens on their children's phones.
"You have to be the parent. The teacher can't be the parent. The church can't be the parent. The school can't be the parent," Reynolds says.
Tim R. Juergens, an investigator with the Frederick County Sheriff's Office and Internet crimes task force member along with Galbreath, takes a more fatalistic view. The father of two says, "I'm not sure I'll allow my boys to get on the Internet.
Related category entriesThis story was filed in the Moms category. View more entries in this category:
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