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Local and regional agencies are making strides in the fight against online predators, but much work remains to be done

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s a scenario that plays out every day: A bored 12-year-old girl named Crystal enters a Yahoo chatroom. Immediately, a screen pops up. “A/S/L/?” — age, sex, location? — another chat user inquires. Within minutes, Crystal has revealed that she’s a seventh-grader who lives in Waynesville, N.C., and she’s on the computer while both her parents (whom she’s mad at) are at work. The user Crystal is chatting with — a 13-year-old boy — sympathizes with her about fighting with her parents. Suddenly, Crystal has a new friend she can confide in.

What Crystal doesn’t know is that the 13-year-old boy she’s talking to is really 40. Then again, Crystal Shuler, a detective with the Waynesville Police Department, isn’t 12. She’s acting the part to try and catch a child predator who lurks around chat rooms, befriending kids and pretending to be their peer while trying to set the stage for a sexual encounter.

Shuler is part of a wave of law enforcement working to combat Internet crimes against children. Officers track faceless sexual predators through the murky world of chat rooms, social networking sites like MySpace, and advertising forums such as Craig’s List.

Shuler is one of the first police detectives in Western North Carolina to track Internet predators. She started with Yahoo chat rooms in 2006 posing as a young girl. Shuler entered chat rooms geared toward users from one state — in this case, North Carolina. Within seconds of entering, she would be peppered by requests for her age, sex and location. Some dropped the conversation immediately when they learned how young she was; others didn’t. Catching predators on Yahoo proved difficult. The wide base of users meant potential predators could be hours away and often in different states.

Shuler didn’t become aware of Craig’s List, a site where individuals in the same area can post everything from personal ads to furniture classifieds, until a fellow officer stumbled upon it last year. The explicit nature of the posts and lack of oversight shocked her. Soon, Shuler was posing as a madam responding to ads looking for sexual services in exchange for money. She had to learn the lingo — money was often referred to as “roses.” Through her work, the Waynesville police collected enough evidence to perform Operation Summer Heat, which netted several individuals for solicitation of prostitutes.

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Shuler put her focus back on catching child predators through Craig’s List, and recently answered an ad from someone looking for a young guy to play around with. That led to the arrest earlier this month of Canton Middle School Teacher Thomas Eric Allen Jr., who was charged with solicitation of a child by computer.

In the age of the Internet, anonymity reigns — and not everyone is who they appear to be. The absence of face-to-face communication has created a hotbed of opportunity for potential child sex offenders. According to a 2004 report by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 17 will experience a sexual solicitation or approach while online.


Predator without a face

The stereotype of an online sexual predator as a lonely, solitary 19-year-old male who’s never been on a date isn’t realistic, says Fred Hawley, a professor of criminology at Western Carolina University.

Instead, online predators span all demographics.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper agrees.

“It can be anybody — somebody you least expect; somebody married with two children and seemingly stable. It’s not just the scary-looking man in the corner. You really can’t tell who some of these predators are. They come from all walks of life. We’ve caught predators who are otherwise upstanding citizens,” says Cooper.

Alvin Malesky, a WCU psychology professor who worked with Internet sex offenders at a prison treatment program, say the individuals he saw were “fairly educated and fairly computer savvy ... it runs the gamut — everyone from radio station DJs to rocket scientists to former school officials and law enforcement.”

With the Internet, those that may have never acted on an illegal sexual impulse in real life feel protected behind the cloak of a computer. Hawley likens a perpetrator to “funny uncle Charlie” — an oddball guy who may have had inappropriate sexual thoughts, but who risked too much if he was to act on those thoughts in a traditional setting.

“These predators have been emboldened by the computer. In the past, they would have to get to know the child physically. Gaining a child’s confidence, now they can do all of that online,” Cooper says.

“In the secrecy of your own home, no one knows what you’re doing,” Malesky adds. He says that because their behavior can be kept so secret, predators can make themselves believe that it’s OK.

“It’s been suggested that people are moving around a slippery slope and their behavior is becoming more acceptable in their own mind,” Malesky says.

Hawley refers to this as a “disinhibiting” effect. Predators seem to be unconscious of the ramifications of their actions. Online, they can say things they don’t necessarily mean or would never act upon.

Besides fostering a lack of inhibition, the Internet culture also contributes to social isolation.

“I think it’s on the rise. I think we’re moving toward more isolation. Schools and universities have online programs, which don’t foster socialization. Businesses are going online or outsourcing, and that just increases the tendency toward social isolation,” says Hawley. “A lot of these guys would have been socialized in the workplace, but if they can work at home, they’re cut off from meeting people and learning how to act in social settings.”

As a result, predators can have problems dealing with women or men their own age and may not be able to relate to them. They may go online to look for “someone more vulnerable and more amenable to certain practices,” Hawley says.

Immaturity, whether it’s caused by a lack of socialization or is simply inherent, is a common characteristic shared by Internet predators.

“A lot of these guys are very immature and they do relate to the kids well, essentially operating on a 12- to 14-year-old level themselves. They’re emotionally underdeveloped,” says Hawley. “These guys have real problems in any kind of social sexual situation with a mature woman of their own age.”


Things to watch for

Internet predators are skilled at coaxing information out of the children they communicate with. Experts say children and their parents should be aware of certain questions that can unknowingly cause a child to reveal too much and make them an easy target.

Identifying a child’s age is a first step for predators. The Internet offenders Malesky worked with told him that having an age as part of a screen name or profile will sometimes make a child an automatic target. If a child is reluctant to reveal his or her age, other questions can help a predator find out, says Shuler. A child’s favorite movies, music and where they attend school can all be identifying factors.

“Where are your parents?” is a question that can clue predators in to the level of parent supervision, and therefore how easily accessible a child may be.

“They’ll try to see how difficult it’s going to be for them to pursue what they’re going to pursue,” explains Shuler.

Extended periods of time online can also indicate a lack of parental supervision, Malesky adds.

Hawley warns that kids should be leery of “the overly friendly stranger,” or someone who shows excessive interest in the child. Pretending to be a peer or an understanding friend is part of a process known as “grooming,” where the predator “acts like a good buddy and kind of softens them up,” says Hawley. Predators can groom dozens of children at the same time, Cooper says. The hope is that through grooming, even if a child finds out a predator’s true age, they would be more inclined to keep in contact with the predator and even go along with one’s wishes.

Besides educating children on key lingo associated with potential Internet predators, parents should practice oversight of their children’s computer usage, experts say.

“Parents need to exercise complete control over the computer. Some of the (blocking) software can be helpful, but they need to put the computer in the family room where they can look over their kid’s shoulder from time to time,” says Hawley.

“Know what Web sites they’re going to. If they’ve got MySpace, ask to look at it,” Shuler adds. “You don’t have to be very computer savvy to look at the history on the computer and see where your kid’s been.”


Catching Internet predators

WNC law enforcement has been slow to receive the resources it needs to combat Internet predators. Training for fighting Internet crime is available through the State Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit, but most WNC agencies haven’t had the manpower or time to take part.

John Buchanan, a detective with the Sylva Police Department, shared his frustrations.

“We’re taking measures to try and get something going, but we’re running into problems with resources. It’s such a time-consuming investigation, and our resources are so limited, it’s hard to get off the ground,” he says.

“Everybody’s in the same situation — you can’t afford to send this many people off to school for four days. You just don’t have the time and money to do it,” adds Shuler.

The daily communication often required to track an Internet predator can also be extremely time-consuming.

“A lot of the people that you speak with online will lose interest if you can’t talk with them everyday. Unfortunately, that’s a very difficult thing to do when carrying the kind of caseload that officers are carrying,” says Heidi Van Dyne, an investigator with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

“If you only respond to people from 8 to 5, they’re going to think something’s up with that, if you’re only communicating during business hours,” explains Shuler.

Because of a lack of resources, many law enforcement agencies are only able to respond to incidents or tips rather than trying to find the Internet predators on their own.

In Swain County, where officers haven’t received formal training to combat predators, allegations are only investigated “if someone comes in and reports it. We have two investigators also trying to take care of other crimes,” says Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

“Unfortunately, with the case load right now, a lot of what we do is reactive,” agrees Van Dyne. “We are answering outcries of children, and we’re answering cases where an abuse has occurred. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to be proactive.”

Attorney General Cooper says he doesn’t expect the smaller agencies in North Carolina to always be able to take part in training to combat Internet predators. That doesn’t stop him from encouraging them.

“I’ve written every sheriff and chief encouraging them to train at least some of their officers. We don’t expect a lot of the smaller agencies to do it, but certainly the large ones can work with the SBI to try and catch predators online,” he says.

Still, the number of officers trained to combat Internet predators is slowly increasing.

“Up until recently there haven’t been officers doing these investigations. As recently as two years ago, no officers in our area were actively doing these investigations. Now officers are coming forward, and we’re seeing more and more of it,” says 30th Judicial District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.

Help for law enforcement agencies is on the way. Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC) has expressed a desire to see ICAC expanded, and Cooper says he plans to ask the General Assembly for more SBI agents and training resources. In counties, commissioners can decide to pay for an extra officer dedicated to Internet predator cases.

The attorney general has made catching Internet predators a major focus of his time in office. Cooper pushed to make soliciting an undercover officer posing as a child a Class H felony instead of a misdemeanor. Bonfoey says this still poses a problem because a judge is pretty much locked into giving someone probation for a Class H if they don’t have a prior record.

Cooper also formed the first computer forensics unit in the SBI. Recently, Cooper led 49 other attorney generals in a successful drive to get My Space to place tighter regulations on users.

“Armed with these new laws and new training, we’re going online and catching these predators before they have a chance to hurt our children,” Cooper says.

The time invested in combating Internet predators is well worth it, says Detective Shuler.

“If you only make one arrest involving a child, it’s worth the time. There’s nobody that would disagree with that. Any crime against children is a priority,” she says.

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