Threat of Online Predators to Children
Every year, thousands of children become victims of crime whether through kidnappings, violent attacks, sexual abuse, or online predators that uses social media warfare tactics to confuse and deceive them. The mission of the FBI’s Violent Crimes Against Children program (VCAC) is threefold:
- ? To decrease the vulnerability of children to sexual exploitation
- ? To develop a nationwide capacity to provide a rapid, effective, and measured investigative response to crimes against children
- ? To enhance the capabilities of state and local law enforcement investigators through programs, investigative assistance, and task force operations
The VCAC program provides a rapid, proactive, and comprehensive capacity to counter all threats of abuse and exploitation of children when those crimes fall under FBI jurisdiction. The FBI employs multi-disciplinary and multi-agency teams to investigate and prosecute crimes that cross legal, geographical, and jurisdictional boundaries. This facilitates the identification and rescue of child victims and reduces the vulnerability of children to in-person and online sexual exploitation and abuse and reduces the negative impact of domestic and international parental rights disputes. Investigative priorities include
- ? Child abductions including non-ransom child abductions and domestic parental kidnapping
- ? Child sexual exploitation enterprises that operate domestic child prostitution and the online networks and enterprises that make them possible
- ? Contact offenses against children including domestic travel with intent to engage in illegal sexual activity with children
- ? Child sex tourism (international travel to engage in sexual activity with children)
- ? Production of child pornography
- ? Mass distribution of child pornography; possession of child pornography
- ? International parental kidnapping
- ? Other crimes against children within the FBI’s jurisdiction are investigated in accordance with available resources
These efforts solidified during investigations into the disappearance of a juvenile in May 1993, when FBI special agents from the Baltimore field office and detectives from the Prince George’s County Maryland Police Department identified two suspects who had sexually exploited numerous juveniles over a 25-year period. The investigation into these activities determined that adults were routinely using computers to transmit sexually explicit images to minors and, in some instances, to lure minors into engaging in illicit sexual activity.
Further investigation and discussions with experts, both within the FBI and in the private sector, revealed that the use of computer telecommunications was rapidly becoming one of the most prevalent techniques by which some sex offenders shared pornographic images of minors and identified and recruited children into sexually illicit relationships. In 1995, based on information developed during this investigation, the Innocent Images National Initiative, which was initially part of the FBI Cyber Division, was created to address the illicit activities conducted by users of commercial and private online services and the Internet.
In 2000, the Crimes Against Children program was established by the FBI and it was under this umbrella program that other programs such as the Innocence Lost National Initiative and Child Abduction Rapid Deployment teams were implemented to provide additional resources and response tools to combat the ever-present problems of child prostitution, child abduction, and child sex tourism.
In October 2012, the Crimes Against Children program and the Innocent Images National Initiative merged to form the VCAC program in the Criminal Investigative Division. The program continues the efforts of previous programs by providing centralized coordination and analysis of case information that is national and international in scope. This requires close cooperation not only among FBI field offices and legal attaches but also with state, local, and international governments.
Many child sexual exploitation investigations are conducted undercover by FBI field offices by Child Exploitation Task Forces (CETFs), which combine the resources of the FBI with those of other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Many of these investigations are worked in coordination with Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces.
Unfortunately chat rooms and other social networking and online media forums offer the advantage of immediate communication around the world, providing pedophiles with an anonymous means of identifying and recruiting child victims into sexually illicit relationships. Thus, the ICAC program expanded its scope to include investigations involving all areas of the Internet and online services:
- ? Internet websites that post child pornography
- ? Internet newsgroups
- ? Internet relay chat (IRC) channels
- ? Online groups and organizations (eGroups)
- ? Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs
- ? Bulletin board systems (BBSs) and other online forums
- ? Social networking venues
FBI agents and task force officers are real social media warfare operatives that go online using fictitious screen names and engage in real-time chat or e-mail conversations with subjects in order to obtain evidence of criminal activity. Investigation of specific online locations can be initiated based on a citizen complaint, a complaint by an online service provider, a referral from a law enforcement agency, or uncovering the name of an online location that suggests there may be illicit activity.
The ICAC program has been highly successful and has proved to be a logical, efficient, and effective method to identify and investigate individuals who are using the Internet to sexually exploit children. To date, there have been five VCAC program subjects placed on the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives list:
- 1. Eric Franklin Rosser (placed on list 2000; captured in 2001)
- 2. Michael Scott Bliss (placed on list 2002; captured in 2002)
- 3. Richard Steve Goldberg (placed on list 2002; captured in 2007)
- 4. Jon Savarino Schillaci (placed on list 2007; captured in 2008)
- 5. Eric Justin Toth (placed on list 2012; captured in 2013)
The Violent Crimes Against Children International Task Force (VCACITF) is an expert cadre of international law enforcement officers working together to provide a global response to crimes against children through strategic partnerships, the aggressive engagement of relevant law enforcement, and the extensive use of liaison, operational support, and coordination. One of the primary missions of the VCACITF is to combat child sex tourism.
Child sex tourism (CST) is defined as travel abroad to engage in the commercial sexual exploitation of a child under the age of 18. Some CST offenders, usually novices to the commercial sex trade, plan their travel through U.S.-based tour companies or tour operators, whereas other offenders plan their travel independently. Information on procuring children in foreign destinations is readily available in pedophile newsgroups and forums on the Internet.
In certain countries where there is a thriving commercial sex industry, such information can be obtained through taxi drivers, hotel concierges, and newspaper advertisements. Studies show Southeast Asian countries particularly Cambodia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the most common destinations for child sex tourism. Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil are also emerging destinations for CST. An estimated 25% of child sex tourists in the previously mentioned Southeast Asian countries are U.S. citizens, and an estimated 80% of CST offenders in Latin American countries are U.S. citizens.
The FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division of which the VCAC program is a part, in conjunction with the International Operations Division, carries out joint operations overseas with governments in some of the top CST destinations. These operations target child sex tourists who do not plan their illegal activities from the United States but rather seek to procure children once they arrive at their destination.
The purpose of the operations is to coordinate with foreign law enforcement to gather evidence against American offenders that is admissible in U.S. courts, with the goal of extraditing those offenders back to the United States for prosecution. The VCAC program coordinates all efforts with FBI legal attaches in these countries to provide training, equipment, and logistical support to these joint operations .