NBC15 Investigates: Local law enforcement sees increase in cases of online crimes against children

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- The Madison Police Department’s Special Victims Unit and the statewide Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force says they’ve seen in an increase in the number of cases of predators taking advantage of children online.

Detectives with Madison SVU describe a trend they are seeing called “sextortion.” They say predators will build an online relationship with a child, grooming them into a trusting relationship. Then, the predator will start asking for photos, making promises of sending money or liking photos if the child does, and making threats if they don’t. Once a predator has a suggestive photo of a child they threaten to leak the photo if the child does not do as they say.

“We just recently had a case where a 10 year old was engaging in that type of activity,” SVU Detective Paul Bauman said.

Detectives say even if a child thinks they’re only sending a photo to one person, often times that photo can pop up other places on the internet.

“Once you hit send you have no control over where that photo goes and we can never get it back. It will never be off the internet it will be out there forever,” SVU Detective Sargent Julie Johnson said.

Sextortion is just one example of how predators are taking advantage of kids and teens online. In 2017 Madison SVU investigated 58 cases of crimes involving children and the internet. In 2018 that number jumped to 77 cases.

The statewide Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, an investigative branch within the Wisconsin Department of Justice, says they’ve seen an increase in cybertips handed off to them from the nationwide Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Here’s a breakdown of the tips passed along to ICAC:
2014: 1,275
2015: 1,300
2016: 1,646
2017: 1,736
2018: 2,198

“I think that as more and more younger children have access to the internet and are unsupervised and more predators know that and I think more people are becoming aware of it and are reporting it more frequently,” Johnson said.

The Wisconsin DOJ and ICAC Task Force are using new tools to try and track down predators. They recently started using a van equipped with a mobile, forensic digital crime lab to take out into the field. The mobile lab allows them to go to where a suspected predator is and instantly access their digital information.

“The main advantage would be to get to the suspect as soon as possible so they can no longer commit the crime and hurt other children or continue to hurt the same child,” digital forensic examiner Kimberly Bizub said.

Every state across the country has a similar internet crimes task force. That means even if a predator lives out of reach from local or state law enforcement, investigators can work together to investigate and arrest an online predator.

“It doesn’t end just because it’s not in our jurisdiction. We keep going so that we can prosecute them,” Johnson said.

Law enforcement is consistently training investigators to keep up with the latest trends and changes to social media and online enticement. They say it’s important to try and stay ahead of tech-savvy predators.

“It’s a change in society. We’re dealing with social media. That’s the whole genesis of this. It has created a source of criminal activity that you really do need to stay on top of,” Bauman said.

Investigators say the best way to prevent children from becoming victims is to be an active and educated parent.

“Telling your kids look both ways, don’t talk to strangers, now it’s ‘what’s your password? Who are you talking to online?’ It’s a different conversation,” Bauman said.

The ICAC Task Force has tools for parents and kids to learn about online dangers and keep up with changing trends. They also have a podcast that highlights different aspects of online safety and education.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of online enticement, blackmail or other inappropriate behavior online, you can send a cybertip here.