There are times when a popular technology advances too fast for the legal system to keep up. It happened a few years ago when sales of remote-control drones raised privacy concerns and posed deadly hazards for aircraft. More recently, lawmakers and transportation authorities have struggled to cope with the introduction of self-driving cars on our roadways.
In 1997, it was America Online. According to the U.S. Census, only 18 percent of American households had Internet access that year, but the number was rising at an explosive pace. At the dawn of the Internet age, AOL dominated the U.S. market. It didn’t just offer Internet plans and email accounts, it offered an experience – fun games, online chat rooms and the revolutionary Instant Messenger app.
The appeal was largely generational. Young Americans embraced their new electronic communication options and spurned traditional hand-written letters and phone calls. Many parents initially shied away from the change and ceded cyberspace to the kids.
Unfortunately, child predators didn’t do the same. Where predatory behavior once seemed like a rarity – cases like the disappearances of Adam Walsh in 1981 and Etan Patz, the original milk carton portrait, in 1979 captivated the nation — the Internet made it a widespread crisis overnight. The formerly ultra-high risk process of trying to build trust with victims over time at the park or follow them around the neighborhood in a van, was no longer necessary. Predators could now simultaneously carry on conversations with dozens of kids in the safe confines of their homes, all while pretending to be someone else.
Rich Wistocki knows all too well. As a detective in the Naperville (Illinois) Police Department just outside of Chicago, he recalled his first Internet sex crime case in 1997. A 14-year-old girl was contacted through AOL by a man from Tennessee. He drove up north and abducted her from her home.
For a suburban police department with little experience dealing with cyber crimes, the case raised complicated questions. How do you find someone when all you have to go on is a bogus screen name? How does a local police department pursue a suspect who could be living anywhere in the country?
They devised a plan that turned to technology to combat the technology.
“My partner Mike Sullivan, who was formerly of the [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration], suggested taking over her account and posing as her, like a drug case,” Wistocki recalled. “The guy did it again, and a month later they arrested him.”
The Struggle to Stay Ahead of the Curve
Now retired from police work, Wistocki is the owner of Be Sure Consulting, which trains law enforcement, educators and students to respond to cyber threats. He has also been an effective advocate in the legal war against cybercrimes, having authored Illinois’ anti-teen sexting law and sexual exploitation of a child law.
Sadly, Wistocki’s career didn’t coincide with a decline in cyber crimes against children. As technology became more sophisticated, so did predators. Today, we have more reason than ever to be vigilant, and work to employ better solutions to this very serious threat faced by every child with access to the internet. Recent studies reveal that:
- An estimated 39 million American adults and 3 million children have been victims of sexual abuse.
- Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur against children ages 17 and under.
- Approximately 1 in 7 youth Internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations. One in 25 received an online sexual solicitation in which the solicitor tried to make offline contact.
- Survivors of sexual abuse are 10 to 13 times more likely to attempt suicide.
Although police have come a long way in investigating cyber crimes, Wistocki says they are sometimes held back by a reflexive resistance to changing protocols and sharing information. Local departments also suffer from a lack of resources to handle online crimes.
“Computers, flip phones, smart phones, apps — law enforcement is typically about 10 years behind new technology when it comes to training how to tackle the problems,” he said. “There’s no budget to train cops. … Law enforcement needs to catch up.”
The issue is sometimes exposed in delicate cases like when a teenage girl’s revealing selfie winds up in the wrong hands and gets forwarded around to humiliate the victim. Local authorities are often hobbled by outdated protocols such as referring the report to a state or federal agency, or, because of a lack of a clear timeline and other corroborating evidence, feel compelled to let the case drop.
Once again, Wistocki is turning to technology as part of the solution. At a recent conference, he was introduced to the STOPit anonymous reporting app and saw its promise for opening the lines of communication with a famously difficult group to reach — students. Since then, he has helped spread the word to school resource officers at universities and K-12 districts.
Once STOPit takes root, it can be a pipeline of information from young people who might otherwise feel too embarrassed or scared to approach school personnel in person. While anonymous reports don’t always solve a case or even pan out, they are a piece of information that can be considered and investigated like any other, and perhaps turn a cold case warm.
The following are additional resources with information about keeping children safe online:
- The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team offers these tips for parents.
- STOPit blog profile of Mallory’s Army, a nonprofit dedicated to helping kids stand up to cyber bullying.
- White House guide to Talking with Kids About Being Online (PDF).
- U.S. Department of Homeland Security Stop.Think.Connect. campaign Parent and Educator Resources.
Find out more about how STOPit solutions can help reduce risk, discourage bad behavior and provide evidence to help catch those who act abusively. Click below to contact us and find out more.