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Police join statewide effort to fight Internet crimes against kids

Expanding technology offers predators more ways to reach out

Sept. 22, 2009

Nude pictures sent via e-mail, sexually explicit text messages, adults befriending children on Facebook. These are some of the dangers children can face in a technology-driven world, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said.

"Online sex predators use technology to connect with kids, using all the tools they use," he said.

In the past decade, The Wisconsin Department of Justice's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has arrested 639 people, executed 808 search warrants and protected countless children statewide. Van Hollen estimates that at any given time, more than 22,000 Wisconsin-based Web sites contain and offer to distribute child pornography.

The numbers continue to grow, largely because of the proliferation of technology in children's daily lives and an increase in the number of law enforcement agencies joining the task force. The Wauwatosa Police Department became a member last month, and now has access to training opportunities and computer equipment that can help better prepare officers to investigate Internet crimes involving kids.

"We hope it will help us better respond to complaints we get," said Lt. Dennis Davidson, who is serving as program coordinator within the Wauwatosa Police Department. "The goal is to be more self sufficient on these types of cases."

Reports don't come in often

So far, the number of child-related Internet crime cases being reported to the Police Department remains small, but Van Hollen points out that less than 10 percent of Internet crimes against children get reported.

Davidson saw the task force as an opportunity for a newer officer who had an interest in computers. But he is quick to point out the crimes extend to all electronic devices used for communication.

"Typically it's someone trying to entice a child for sexual gratification," he said.

Just this past week, Wauwatosa officers have been investigating a "sexting" case, involving a Wauwatosa teen who has been receiving pornographic photos and sexually explicit messages on his cell phone from a 23-year-old Indiana man. The two met when the boy used his Xbox to go online and play games against other people.

The boy's mother alerted police to the sexting - the sending of sexually explicit via electronic devices such as cell phones - and added that the boy may have been taken in because he does not have many friends and suffers from depression, according to a police report.

It's not an unusual story, Van Hollen said.

Task force offers support

In complicated cases that require computer expertise beyond what local officers can offer, the task force has a team of investigators and computer forensic analysts ready to help, the attorney general said.

Few cases start and end within the same jurisdiction, and therefore nearly all task force investigations require multiagency collaboration. Locally, West Milwaukee, South Milwaukee and Shorewood count among the 95 task force members.

AT A GLANCE

The following are a few Internet usage tips for parents:

• Watch a child's Internet use by keeping computers in common areas. Create and post Internet and guidelines by the computer.

• Use filters that block inappropriate Web sites or online services that could be harmful to children.

• Find out how kids are communicating online and with other types of technology, such as cell phones. If a parent can't appropriately supervise the technology, they can ban its use.

• Report online exploitation by calling the Police Department at (414) 471-8430 or the task force at (608) 266-1671.

• Parents can get more information about online safety at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's Web site, netsmartz.org.

• Talk to children about their online activities. What sites are they visiting? Who are they communicating with? Establish a positive relationship with children. Otherwise there are many people online waiting to validate them.

• Parents should know their children's passwords, screen names and account information.

• Advise children against downloading items from unknown sources, which may be inappropriate, contain copyrighted material or infect a computer with viruses.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Justice

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