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Police struggle to catch online pedophiles
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
April 15, 2002


It's estimated 10 million kids regularly use the Internet. National research shows one in five of them receive unwanted sexual solicitations. Should police patrol Internet chat rooms, or are teens savvy enough to take care of themselves online? Police in the Fargo area are now nabbing people online.

Chat room
Chat rooms on the Internet can be dangerous places for children and teens to visit, because pedophiles sometimes use chat rooms to solicit youngsters for sex. Police in communities around the region are struggling to track down offenders.
(MPR graphic/Ben Tesch)

When a parent recently reported online solicitation of a teenage girl, police in West Fargo, N.D., weren't sure what to do. Few officers are trained to investigate cyber-crime. When a computer-savvy officer logged into a chat room as a 14-year-old girl, he was propositioned within half an hour. A 21-year-old man was arrested a few days later, when he showed up to meet the girl.

It's the third such arrest this year in West Fargo. Police Chief Arland Rasmussen says it's a serious and growing problem.

"Right now people feel very sure of themselves - that they can do this anonymously, that they're not going to get caught. They know there's not a lot of people out there looking," Rasmussen says.

The three men arrested in West Fargo are charged under a felony luring law passed last year in North Dakota. Rasmussen says soliciting sex in a chat room is not a crime, but arranging a physical meeting breaks the law. He expects the statute to be challenged in court. At least 21 states now have specific laws against soliciting minors online. Minnesota is not one of them.

West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen believes police have a responsibility to investigate cyber-crime. He's proposing a metro cyber-crime unit in the Fargo-Moorhead area. But should police patrol chat rooms trolling for predators? Rasmussen says that wouldn't be necessary if parents took responsibility for their kids' computer use.

David Finkelhor
Researcher David Finkelhor says many teens who are solicited for sex online are afraid to report it, because they may feel complicit in looking for companionship. His research shows one in five teenagers who use the Internet have been solicited for sex online.
(Photo courtesy of the Crimes Against Children Research Center )

"The kids are...talking (on the Internet) to somebody else who happens to be a pervert in another part of the country, or maybe just down the street - and mom and dad don't have any idea. Would they have allowed that person in their home to go into the bedroom and talk to their daughter? I don't think so. Well, they're in there," says Rasmussen.

A national survey found one in five teenagers who use the Internet have been solicited for sex. The survey was conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

"Like all sex crimes, the part that comes to public attention is just the tip of the iceberg," says the center's director, David Finklehor.

Finklehor says teens who are most vulnerable are those having trouble with parents, in school or with friends. He says these youngsters are more likely to spend a lot of time in computer relationships, and less likely to report sex crimes.

"The kids who get involved in this are often complicit in some way, in that they went to meet somebody. Many who get victimized feel very reluctant to go to authorities - feeling like they're going to be blamed for what happened, or they may not be believed," says Finkelhor. "So you can bet there's an awful lot of this that's not coming to attention."

Finkelhor says parents need to do a better job of monitoring computer use. He says schools should do more to teach teens about online dangers.

"If you go on a chat room it's mostly about sex and stuff like that. So, I don't go on chat rooms because older people try and be younger. You don't know where they're from or how old they actually are."

- Cass, a sophomore at Moorhead High School

Internet safety seems to be old hat to students in the Moorhead High School computer lab. A survey of a dozen students finds none use chat rooms. All use instant messaging and e-mail. They all carefully control who they talk with online.

"There's weird people on the Internet," says Cass, a 10th grader.

Cass is working on a research project with her classmate Nick. She's found the Internet can be an uncomfortable place.

"If you go on a chat room it's mostly about sex and stuff like that. So, I don't go on chat rooms because older people try and be younger. I don't like that. You don't know where they're from or how old they actually are," says Cass.

"People will say, 'Let's meet.' And then they'll meet them and get killed or raped or something," adds Nick.

These kids say they've taken personal responsibility for their safety online. They talk online only with people they know.

Crimes Against Children Research Center Director David Finkelhor says kids like these may be the best protection against online predators. He says parents and policymakers are bemoaning the prevalence of cyber-crime. Finkelhor says perhaps, they should instead talk to kids about solutions.

West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rassmussen says parents are the first line of defense against online predators. But he hopes to soon find funding for a full time cyber-cop to patrol online.

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