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Special investigations team discusses online predators, offers safety tips

Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 2:15 p.m. CDT

COUNTY – Social media and smart phones have provided new ways for predators to prey on victims, said Chief Fred Day of Lake County State's Attorney Special Investigations. 

The Lake County State's Attorney's Office reports more than 200 charges of child sexual abuse or assault in Lake County in the last year, and more 100 charges involving child pornography.

"There's significant overlap between sexual predator cases and child pornography cases because of today's technology," Day said.Day said the Internet is a double-edged sword. It helps predators find victims, and it helps law enforcement catch predators. 

"It used to be when a child saw a strange adult, there was the intimidation factor of a real person standing there, someone larger than them that they didn't know," Day said, sitting in Lake County Children's Advocacy Center in Gurnee, where children are interviewed by investigators to gather evidence of sexual abuse. 

"When a child is in their living room or bedroom on a computer, there's the illusion of safety that there's some barrier between them and this person," he said. "But, in fact, it's much more intimate and much more private."

The person on the other end understands that the child is likely sitting alone in front of a computer screen, and they start asking things that the child may not be prepared to deal with and so what is perceived as a much more safe encounter by parents and child is much more dangerous, and much more manipulative."

Children's Advocacy Center Director Laura Notson said many teens who post sexual photos of themselves online or share them with strangers don't view themselves as victims.

Many believe they are in a serious relationship when they share the photos with an adult offender, Notson said.

Day said, "[Many teens] don't perceive the disparity in age, maturity and sophistication and how that's a crime and how that's wrong. That can be a difficult situation for a young person – when a 13- or 14-year old is in a relationship with a 35-year old.

It's difficult for kids to navigate being a victim, what school will say, getting in trouble, and their feelings for this person and that's why it's so wrong to put kids in that situation – they aren't equipped to deal with it."

Notson said a lot of kids don't realize the photos are difficult if not impossible to erase once posted.

"In many of our cases, teens who felt they were in a relationship 10 years ago have since come back and said now they do perceive that differently and are thankful for our services," Notson said.

Offenders of crimes involving child pornography are usually caught when a relative stumbles upon the pornography, or a law enforcement agency is notified by activity on Google, Yahoo or Tumblr, Day said.

"When [websites] detect an upload of images identified as child porn, a local authority is notified and we can track down the IP address of where those things come from," Day said.

Special investigator James Magna said when it comes to collecting evidence, investigators use sophisticated technology, including a CellBrite machine, which can scan a device's content without plugging in."We've held a camera in our hand and taken 1,400 pictures of each and every text before, or made a video of us scrolling through," Magna said.

The most important aspect of collecting a suspect's digital content is that investigators are able to use tamper-proof methods, he said.

"It's similar to packaging a bloody knife and having it examined by a DNA expert," he said. "It's the same thing with a phone, you get training and are certified to examine phones."

Day said programs are write-blocked so they can pull information, without altering evidence.

"If something's not preserved in the phone, we have to contact the company that stores the data," Magna said. "Companies that care about cooperating with law enforcement will keep the data for a long time, but others will keep it for only three days."

Parents can look for red flags based on evidence observed by officials in child pornography cases, Day said.

"If [a message] ever says, 'Don't tell anyone about this,' that's a red flag. If [an offender] asks for personal identifying information, physical features, age, who they talk to or have told, anything sexual whatsoever – We're not trying to make people paranoid, but these are things we see, these are what offenders ask."

Notson recommends parents begin the conversation of online safety with young ones at age 3.

Day agreed.

"My answer for parents is that it can be uncomfortable, but they need to talk to their kids, watch them and always have a dialogue about what's going on in their life, who they're talking to and who they're in a relationship with," Day said. "We hope this never happens to any kid, but the best thing for us is when a parent has a direct line of communication with their child."

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