Preventing Online Predators: Behind the screen with undercover detectives who track attackers

The proliferation of smartphones and social media has provided more avenues for online predators to target children. In the WTOP series, “Preventing Online Predators,” WTOP goes behind the screen with undercover detectives who work to identify and track down child predators on the internet and speaks to a family about how their teen daughter was targeted.

FAIRFAX, Va. — Sitting inside a nondescript conference room last spring, a Fairfax County detective powered up a computer and logged into an online chat room aimed at teenagers. With just a few keystrokes, the detective — a man in his mid-30s — became a 13-year-old girl.

And, he was really, really popular.

“When I did this earlier, I had five people in the first 30 seconds just hit me up,” he said. Instead of ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you?’ other users began conversations with sexually loaded, sometimes stomach-turning questions. “Do you like to trade pictures?” “Do you like to trade videos?” “Have you ever been raped before?”

It was just another Monday morning.

For the series “Preventing Online Predators,” WTOP went behind the screen with the undercover detectives who take on fake child personas to identify and interact with online predators — and build a case against them.

Technology is making it easier for kids to be exploited online, officials said. And predators are constantly casting their net — way more often than you think, one federal prosecutor said recently — in their efforts to obtain sexually explicit pictures and videos from children.

“You can open up your camera on your phone and take a picture in two seconds,” said the Fairfax County Police Department detective, who works in the department’s Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Unit. WTOP agreed to protect his identity because of the nature of his work.

The Fairfax County unit he works for has either arrested or is currently investigating dozens of “strangers” soliciting kids for illicit images this year alone.

Across the region, state police in Maryland and Virginia have received thousands of tips about possible child exploitation routed into their Internet Crimes Against Children task forces so far this year, helping lead to hundreds of arrests.

But Lt. Jane Burns, who supervises the Fairfax County Police Department’s child exploitation unit, likened it to putting your hand in a bucket of sand. “You pull it out and there’s others to fill it right back in.”

Detectives describe how they go 'undercover'

‘Where kids are, predators will follow’

Back inside the conference room, the detective’s computer screen lit up with private messages from other users in the chat room. One user, who claimed to be a teenager, asked, “Do you like dominant guys?”

Right away, the detective was skeptical.

“A 17-year-old doesn’t talk like that, so we kind of know right away that that isn’t true,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll pretend that they’re younger people just to get involved.”

The chat rooms were swarming with activity at a time when most teens are in school.

The detective said the barrage of adult content they track during times of the day when students aren’t in class can be even more intense.

“It’s not necessarily your kids going on and looking for that sort of thing, but they’re being approached with that kind of content,” Burns said.

The proliferation of smartphones and social media apps have provided more avenues for predators to obtain material that didn’t exist before the digital age, she said.

Police won’t name one social media platform as more likely than another to be the preference of predators. What’s popular with kids today is replaced by something else tomorrow.

“Anytime you have something like Snapchat or Instagram that is wildly popular with kids, you are going to see it abused,” Burns said. “Through no fault of the app, it’s just the nature of it. Where kids are, predators will follow.”

‘It doesn’t take much to get pictures’

Conversations that begin on the internet or in various, random group chats on apps and smartphones can quickly escalate in ways that many kids simply aren’t prepared for.

“It doesn’t take much to get pictures,” the detective said.

Predators try to charm and pressure kids for suggestive or outright pornographic images. From there, the tactics get more aggressive, culminating in threats.

“I will destroy your life, I will text your family, I will Facebook your friends,” are some of the threats used to solicit images from kids. One of the terms often used to describe efforts like that is “sextortion,” though, in many jurisdictions, that’s not an official or legal term.

At times, police can get six or seven reports of these types of extortion cases each week, the detective said.

As the detective monitored the chat room, a smartphone occasionally buzzed — messages from a man who had spent the past few days trying to get illicit pictures from what he thought was a teen girl.

The conversation started with creepy and suggestive comments “about how he likes innocence,” the detective said, scrolling through some of the messages. As it kept going, “I did exactly what any kid would say and said, ‘You’re being really annoying right now.’ And he got upset about that and said, ‘Do you want to see annoying? I’m going to upload your pic.’ Then, he follows through and said, ‘They’re on a porn site.’”

The detective knew the man was bluffing.

“I know they’re not because I didn’t send him any nude pictures, clearly,” he said. But younger girls and boys sometimes think the person has somehow created nude images of them.

“Quite often, the kids will actually still send the pictures because they’re being threatened or they’re scared and the person is very aggressive,” Burns said. Usually, the people pressuring kids for pictures aren’t satisfied with one and will threaten to post what they have, real or not, unless they get more.

How predators convince kids to produce their own child porn

Posing as the girl, the detective continued to chat with the predator: “What do you need for me to have this stop? What’d I do? Why are you doing this to me?”

The man responded, “I want your nude pictures.”

“I kept saying, ‘Please don’t do this, I’m 13, why are you doing this to me?’ He kind of demanded how I go take the picture,” the detective said.

Younger kids — sometimes as young as 8 years old — are even more vulnerable to the online threats, officials said.

Since he started working with the child predator unit a few years ago, the detective said the kids he’s seen being targeted have gotten younger as more of them are now using social media and online chats.

“These kids, younger and younger, have these pictures out there already,” the detective said. “Or, they think it’s become a societal norm or it’s OK to take these pictures and send them out to their friends and, eventually, it gets to the wrong person.”

Once that happens, it becomes very difficult for the police to stop it.

Once a predator receives illicit pictures of children, those images can remain on the internet for years as they get passed around the world. Sometimes, even decades later, the victims, now adults, are still fighting to get the photos taken down.

That’s a reality authorities say children and parents in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are now facing after the recent sentencing of a former substitute teacher and basketball coach on child pornography and child sex abuse charges.

Christopher Speights, 35, had more than 150 sexually explicit files depicting children saved on his digital devices. The former coach was responsible for creating many of them after abusing his access to children for years. A judge sentenced Speights to 35 years in prison last month, but prosecutors said they were still trying to identify all of the victims.

The images “have unfortunately found their way across the world,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh. “These are crimes that live on even after the perpetrator has been put in prison.”

Chatting with predators as he walks the dog

For the detectives who make tracking down online predators their job, there’s no such thing as regular office hours.

Work is often taken home since catching online predators requires working around the clock — weekends and nights.

“I can be home watching TV and chatting with someone just because you can’t always be chatting from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” the Fairfax County detective said.

Once, he even chatted with someone as he and his wife walked their dog around their neighborhood, he said.

“It’s tough,” he added. “You have to be able to separate it out and know when it’s time to take a break. The reason we do this online chatting is to try to get the people before they get to a real child.”

Police face more than just constraints on their time.

“Any jurisdiction could have 100 detectives and a $300 million budget and still, [it’s] a drop in the bucket as far as enforcement and being able to make a huge impact,” Burns said.

For a variety of reasons, police said they can’t prosecute every single person they communicate with. “But, anytime an actual child is involved in a case, we’ll do our best to track those down,” the detective said.

The difficult conversations police have with victims and other challenges authorities face

In the case of the man who texted the detective demanding nude images, the person on the other end of the text message claimed to be from Virginia, but, in reality, was somewhere overseas in a country beyond the reach of the law, the detective said.

‘Thankfully, we were here instead’

The detective estimated about 10 percent of the people the child exploitation unit deals with end up crossing the line to the point that it leads to an arrest. Sometimes, that can mean an online predator seeking to meet with someone they think is a child in real life.

Once that happens, detectives tend to have strong cases on their hands.

The detective described a case from earlier this year that began with online chatting and led to a scheduled meeting between a predator and what he thought was a child.

It involved a repeat offender from another state, who had served what the detective called “a very, very short amount of time” behind bars for an incident with a real 15-year-old girl. “Three months later, he was chatting with me, almost the exact same method he used in the previous case,” the detective said. “I was reading the reports and (thought), ‘Oh, it looks familiar.’”

“Who knows how many other kids he’s chatted with,” the detective said. “Their excuse is ‘I always thought (the account) was fake.’ But no, if there was a real child here, then you would have done exactly what you said you were going to do. Thankfully, we were here instead.”

Burns added, “He had made it very clear ahead of time what his intentions were when he arrived. He didn’t come just to talk.”

Read Part 2 on WTOP


John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

Like WTOP on Facebook and follow @WTOP on Twitter to engage in conversation about this article and others.

© 2018 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up