Predators Find Children on the Internet
The number of children online has grown as rapidly as the whole
Internet. At the end of 1997 there were an estimated 10 million children online, up from 6
million at the beginning of 1997, and up from 1.1 million in 1995. Predators are using
the Internet to contact some of those children and abuse them. They find children in chat
rooms and Web sites for children. They contact them and emotionally abuse them online by
engaging in age-inappropriate sexually explicit talk or sending pornographic images to
them. Some predators also set up physical meetings with children for the purpose of
sexually exploiting and abusing them.
Chat rooms are online sites where people can correspond
interactively. The transmission is instantaneous, so there is no lag between a person
sending the message and the person on a computer at the other end receiving the message.
The contacts are usually anonymous, with participants using nicknames. Chatters can take
on any identity they choose. Sexual predators take full advantage of this. An additional
attraction for those seeking to engage in illegal activities is that there is no record
made of the message in chat rooms, as is the case for bulletin boards or newsgroups. Also,
once two people meet in a chat room, they can quickly open up another private chat room,
so that their conversation is private.
Among the millions of children online, their favorite sites to visit
are chat rooms, where they talk for hours. The most widely used online service for
families is America Online. On an average afternoon, after school in 1997, there were 400
public chat rooms open, each with more than 20 participants. A significant number were
dedicated to sexually suggestive topics.
The initial and most important factor in a predators sexual abuse
of a child is gaining access to that child. The Internet has provided a wide-open venue
for that. Robert Davis, President of Lycos, one of the Internets most popular search
engines, said that parents should be frightened of what and who their children encounter
when using the Internet. He said he never lets his 9-year-old son onto the Web unless he
is sitting beside him.
The problem of predators contacting children first came to widespread
attention in May 1993 when 10-year-old George Stanley Burdynski, Jr. of Prince George
County, Maryland disappeared. The investigation led to two suspects who had sexually
exploited numerous boys over a period of 25 years. They were found to have used their
computers to transmit child pornography and contact boys who were later sexually
The following are other cases of predators who have been caught using
the Internet to make contact with victims.
United States Brooker Maltais, 22, an airman from
Offutt Air Force Base, US pleaded guilty to committing indecent acts and having sex with a
14-year-old girl after they met by exchanging email messages via computer.
United States Four California men (Larry Ponziani, James
Stelzenmuller, Patrick Vogt and David Dahlberg) were charged with having sexual encounters
with a teen-age boy they met on the Internet. They pleaded guilty to charges such as oral
copulation with a minor and sending pornography to a minor with the intent to seduce.
United States A Chelmsford, Massachusetts man, John D.
Rex, pleaded guilty to raping two boys, ages 12 and 14. He met them through a computer
bulletin board. He is now serving a 20 25 year sentence.
United States In December 1996, Cheryl Keans 13-year-old
daughter disappeared, presumably picked-up by the 22 year-old-man she communicated with
online. Ms. Kean has not seen her daughter since. She says, "The Internet has got
to be the pedophiles dream come true. They stalk children without concern of being
The preceding cases occurred in the United States, but
such cases are known to have occurred in other countries. According to Chris Beddoe of End
Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking, there have been cases of sex predators
using the Internet to meet children in Australia, also.
Predators searching for child victims visit chat rooms dedicated to
topics of interest to teens. The perpetrator initiates a conversation, many times not
revealing his own age, or pretending to be another child of similar age. The perpetrator
initiates a process of seduction by engaging the teenager in discussion with increasingly
personal content and shared confidences, thereby gaining her or his trust. Predators who
prey are children are often very charming and easily win childrens trust. Often the
perpetrator will return to that chat room day after day to continue gathering more
information about the girl or boy. The predator will lower the childs inhibitions by
talking about sex, often under the guise of teaching the teen about sex. The perpetrator
will send pornography to the child, including child pornography to convince the child that
other children are sexually active. He may ask the girl or boy to send pictures of herself
or himself. At this point, the perpetrator is sexually exploiting the teen emotionally.
Eventually, the perpetrator sets-up a face to face meeting and moves on to physical sexual
exploitation and abuse.
Stings -- US Police
Undercover Operations Against Predators
The actual number of sex predators online, the number
children they have contacted, the number of physical meetings that have taken place, or
the number of cases of sexual exploitation is impossible to know and even very difficult
Interstate Travel by Predators
In 1996 and 1997 the National Center for Missing and
Exploited Children in the United States was involved in 60 cases in which men used the
Internet to contact children and entice the children to meet them.
Reginald Franklin, 29, from Nevada was arrested on federal charges of
travel with the intent to engage in sexual acts with a juvenile in Texas. The 14-year-old
boy met him in an Internet chat room. Franklin came to the boys school and signed to
take him out of school.
A 12-year-old boy, missing for several weeks from his California home,
was found across the country in the Virginia home of a man he met in a chat room. The boy
had been sexually abused. He had been persuaded over the Internet to take a bus to meet
International Travel by Predators
A 22-year-old man from New Hampshire, US contacted numerous teenage girls through chat
rooms on the Internet in an effort to get them to meet him. In one case he convinced a
13-year-old girl to go with him. He called her school, pretending to be her father, and
told school authorities she was sick and would not be in school that day. He evaded police
for three weeks as he drove the two of them across several states in New England. Kier
Fiore was arraigned in US District Court in Concord on felony charges that he crossed
state lines to avoid prosecution and engage in two misdemeanor charges of taking the girl
out of school illegally. Three months prior to this incident he had contacted two girls
from Massachusetts, ages 13 and 14, in a chat room in an attempt to get them to meet him
in a mall and go to a hotel room. He said he would bring alcohol and pay them to engage in
sexual acts with him. The girls became frightened when he called them and told them he was
coming to get them. They refused to go and told their parents. Fiore was angry and
verbally abusive to the girls parents on the phone. Later that day he sent one of
the girls an email message, "You pissed the wrong person off, playing your little
game Jew Girl!!!! Watch you [sic] back!"
Some predators are willing to travel long
distances to carry out the abuse they initiate over the Internet. Many will travel across
oceans and cross borders to meet children.
In the fall of 1996 children from Sri Lanka, as young as 5-years of
age, were being offered for sale to pedophiles over the Internet. More than 600 new
entries per day were appearing on a Web site for child sex abusers. Sri Lanka has become a
haven for men seeking to sexually abuse children, especially boys. An estimated 10,000 to
12,000 children are currently being sexually exploited in Sri Lanka. The government has
tried to discourage child prostitution tourism by raising the age of consent from 12 to 16
and increasing the prison sentences for those convicted of sex offenses, but one year
after the law was passed, there had been no arrests.
Santosh Ramcharan from The Hague, Netherlands traveled to Washington,
D.C, USA to met a 14-year-old girl. When her parents reported her missing she was found
the next day in a hotel with Ramcharan. They made initial contact over the Internet.
A wealthy man from Oregon, USA persuaded a 12-year-old boy from British Columbia,
Canada to take money, jewelry and his fathers passport and run away from home and
meet him across the border in Seattle. The boys father caught him going out the
door. Donald Roberts, 59, attempted to lure the boy from a computer on his sailboat moored
in the Columbia River. He was charged with attempted kidnapping and solicitation to commit
Predators use various forums on the Internet to
communicate with each other and exchange illegal material or gain physical access to
children for the purposes of abusing and exploiting them. Although predators have had a
lead in technological expertise and equipment, by the mid-1990s some law enforcement
agencies were starting to catch-up.
In 1995 the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a
crackdown called Innocent Images. The operation was created after a 10-year-old boy was
lured from his home and killed in Maryland in 1993. His murder was traced to his
communications to someone over the Internet. In September 1995, US federal agents raided
120 homes and offices, arresting dozens of people in a large operation against online
pornography. The men had used the Internet Service Provider America Online to distribute
child pornography and arrange meetings with children for the purpose of sexually abusing
them. In 1997 the United States Congress dedicated US$10 million dollars to fund 60
new positions, including 25 FBI agents to investigate and prosecute men on the Internet
who seek to contact children for later meetings and abuse. To continue their work, in
1998, the program received an addition US$10 million. As of March 1998, efforts by the
FBI Task Force and the US Customs Services have resulted in 184 arrests and 240
In a joint investigation and sting, known as the
"Tholian Web," agents of the US Customs Service and the New York State Attorney
General Dennis C. Vaccos office spent eighteen months tracking and gathering
evidence on child pornography traffickers in the United States, Germany, Switzerland and
Great Britain. By the end of 1997 the operation had resulted in 120 prosecution referrals
and 32 convictions across the United States.
From 1996 to 1998 the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children, in Arlington, Virginia, USA was involved in 60 "traveler cases," the
term used to refer to adults who contact child victims through the Internet, then arrange
meetings in which the children are sexually abused.
In the US FBI agents are also going online undercover to catch those
seeking children for sexual exploitation. The FBIs national undercover operation
focuses on perpetrators who are willing to travel for the purpose of sexually exploiting a
child, and those who produce and distribute child pornography.
Switzerland In one of the largest child pornography cases, US
federal investigators, posing as owners of an "adult" book and video store, made
contact over the Internet with Swiss citizens, John Grabenstetter, 52, and his wife. The
couple was arrested after they traveled to the United States with the intent of selling
250 child pornography CD-ROMS containing some 9,000 images for US$10,000. Most of the
pictures were of young children being sexually abused by adults. The couples
2-year-old daughter was among those photographed. The couple was charged with 10 counts of
possession and sale of child pornography.
Canada Michael Andrew Gibbon, 29, was arrested by Canadian
police after he offered a Web site operator sexually explicit pictures of children that
would be available after an upcoming babysitting job. In his home police found 3
videocassette recorders, computer equipment, more than 400 videotapes, 15 CD-ROMS, 41
floppy disks, photographic equipment, and 53 rolls of undeveloped film. After further
investigation he was charged with nine counts of sexually touching three female toddlers,
sexually assaulting two of them, and creating and possessing pornography for distribution.
The Web site Gibbon had visited was a sting operation set up by the US Department of
United States Police put an advertisement on the Internet, claiming to be a
divorced woman with three daughters, 7, 10, and 12. Mark Douglas Poehlman answered the
advertisement saying he wanted to have sex with the girls. He arranged to meet the woman
at a motel. Undercover agents arrested him. He was convicted of using the Internet to
arrange a sexual encounter with children, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The most popular forums for predators to find children
are chat rooms, where participants communicate by typing comments to each other. Exchanges
in chat rooms are anonymous and no record is made of the communication, making police
detection and action almost impossible. In an effort to stop predators before they make
contact with children, police in the United States have set up sting operations, in which
they pose as fellow predators or as children in order to catch predators. Police agents
sign on to chat rooms dedicated to topics of interest to teenagers. The number of
predators lurking and prowling in chat rooms for teens is stunning. One FBI agent
pretending to be a teenage girl signed on to a chat room as the 23rd participant. All of
the other 22 "teenagers" turned out to be adults seeking inappropriate contact
with a teenage girl.
Georgia Michael Eugene Pharis, 38, father of five children and
coach of Little League teams for boys and girls, was apprehended by police after driving
hundreds of miles to meet "Wendy," a 13-year-old girl he had contacted through
the Internet. He had sent her child pornography featuring young children. After Internet
conversation he contacted her by telephone and pressed her for information on where she
lived, when her parents would be home, who would be staying with her and when she would be
alone. He said he wanted to come to see her to take pictures and have sex with her. He
gave graphic descriptions of the acts. "Wendy" was really a police officer. He
was charged with transporting, possessing and distributing child pornography. Previously,
he spent 18 months in prison for child molestation.
Maryland A computer consultant from Rockville, Maryland arranged
to meet a 12-year-old girl in a public library when he was caught. Investigation revealed
that he posed as a 16-year-old boy on the Internet and contacted more than 100 girls,
between the ages of 1015. He was convicted in US Federal Court of two counts of
crossing state lines to engage in sex with a minor.
Massachusetts to Florida Stuart Romm, a former administrative
law judge from Brockton, Massachusetts was extradited to Florida to face charges of
transmitting child pornography and soliciting sex over the Internet from a young boy, who
was actually a Florida sheriff.
Over the past few years, Detective James McLaughlin has specialized in
stings aimed at predators using chat rooms to contact teenagers. He poses as a teen
himself and waits for predators to contact him and initiate their abuse. He said that the
first time he entered a chat room pretending to be a 13-year-old girl, he got so many
responses that his computer froze.
The following is a court record of an encounter between a predator,
calling himself "Dano," and a police officer posing as "Jake," a
At 5 p.m. Sept. 29, a police officer in New Hampshire, posing as "Jake,"
entered an Internet chat room known for transmitting child pornography. An online user by
the name of Dano requested to chat with him in a private chat room. The police officer
introduced himself as "Jake," and said he was 15 years old, 5 feet 7 inches tall
and 132 pounds. Dano responded by saying he was 32 years old, "6 feet, 2 inches, 190
pounds, with reddish/blonde hair and green eyes." He described himself as
"smooth" and said he had a camera and a picture of himself.
"I am from Nebraska," he wrote.
The correspondence almost immediately turned sexual in nature, with
"Jake" asking what age of guys Dano liked.
Dano: so have u messed around with many older guys?
Jake: not yet
Dano: I like younger guys, oh, I would say 14-21
Dano then asked "Jake" if he would like to see an X-rated
picture of himself.
That began a process in which Dano transmitted several pornographic
pictures that appeared to be children under the age of 18 engaged in sex acts. Daniel R.
Sigmund, 32, of Bellevue, was later charged with possession and distribution of child
pornography. Evidence in his apartment revealed he went online as "Dano." His
online conversation included references to a previous sexual relationship with a
16-year-old, but police have not been able to find or identify the boy.
Accountability and Deflecting Blame
Catching sexual predators on the Internet can be difficult. One officer
said, "It takes about 30 seconds to find a hard-core conversation or full-color
image and six months to build a case." To be arrested, child sex abusers must
transmit obscene images of children that are provable to be underage, or solicit sexual
acts from children.
Even when arrests are made judges and juries do not always see the harm
done by predators to children. In Canada, a journalist, Thomas Brockelbank, aged 32,
admitted having a "sexual liaison" with a 13-year-old girl he met in an Internet
chat room. He met the girl four times. In one email message he encouraged the girl to
bring her younger sister, so they could have "group sex." Although
convicted, the judge ordered him to serve only two years probation.
When child rapists and predators are found using the
Internet a common response of Internet industry and government officials is to blame
someone else, or say that nothing can be done to stop it. Government officials blame
foreign based Internet servers for displaying the child pornography out of reach of their
laws, saying they are powerless to shut down computer servers in other countries. Internet
providers avoid responsibility by saying that there are so many web sites, bulletin
boards, email lists and chat rooms that they cannot be held accountable for monitoring
them or removing material. Laws are said to be meaningless because they are different in
every country and sometimes, even within countries. Representatives of the Internet
industry always aim to protect the image of the Internet and resist regulation or
accountability. To do this, they often try to minimize the extent of the problem. For
example, after the discovery of the child pornography ring in the Netherlands, the
Chairman of the Dutch Association of Internet Providers, Fred Eisner, commented, "This
is giving the impression that the Internet is loaded with child pornography. That really
isnt the case. You have to consciously hunt it down."
Another strategy to avoid accountability is to always
claim that technology is changing so rapidly that regulations will be constantly outdated.
The Internet industry, which wants no or minimum regulation of its activities, dismisses
calls for legislation or regulation, claiming that it will all be worthless anyway. Janet
Henderson, spokesperson for BT in the UK, says:
"It is impossible to police the Web or ask
Internet Servers to act as judge and jury over their clients. Not only are difficult
decisions having to be made, but its a question of civil rights-no one wants BT to
become Big Brother." She also added, "Technology is changing so fast that
any law passed will be redundant before the inks dry."
In an irresponsible talk at the 1997 London conference, Policing the
Internet, Nel Van Kijk, from the Netherlands, who was Chair of the Committee of
Womens Rights of the European Parliament, dismissed claims of child pornography on
the Internet and spoke only about the importance of freedom of expression. Concerning
pornography in general, she quoted from a document she found on the Internet written by
the National Coalition Against Censorships Working Group on Women,
"This message in Cyberspace made my heart jump for joy. I
continue with my cybersisters: We believe we shouldnt allow government to tell
women or men how we should think or write about our lives, including our sex lives. We
think those kinds of laws are no good for anyone, and we know they are bad for
women. It is clear and sincere language, I like that and overall I agree with it."
Ms. Van Dijk said that censorship on the Internet was technically
impossible, which made her happy, and promised that many dire consequences would result if
any limits were imposed. At this conference police officials from Germany and the UK
gave presentations on violent pornography and child pornography on the Internet. Ms. Van
Dijk also completely dismissed their findings and evidence. She stated,
"I want to elaborate on this issue of child pornography a bit
more. One of my collaborators, who has been on the Internet for seven years now, tried to
get hold of child porn on the net just to find out what it is all about. He made a small
collection of what he found, after a long search. He showed me the pictures he had
captured and I got a bit confused. Most of them were fashion photos of young boys and
girls, beach photos of dressed children just like we find in womens magazines. The
worst I saw was an amateur photography of two young three or four year old nude boys
coming from the showers, while a dressed old man was looking at them."
Ms. Van Dijks ignorance of the reality of child pornography on the
Internet might be forgiven, if it wasnt for her attitude towards the child
pornography that she did acknowledge existed. She cited a study by David Fenton, who
investigated the newsgroup alt.sex.paedophilia, and reported, according to Ms. Van
Dijk that most of the pictures on the newsgroup were not renewed regularly, and anyway,
those that were there were "at least twenty years old." Also, since it
was not easy to identify who posted the photos, nothing could be done.
After minimizing the extent and harm of child
pornography on the Internet, she went further and asked for less action against child
pornography on the Internet, and suggested that children will have to pay the price for
her freedom of expression. "
we should try to handle child pornography and
other despicable acts with a bit more calm.
So we will have to face the situation
that freedom of speech on the Internet might run a bit out of hand."
For more information on the Internet industrys lack of accountability see the
section in this report on self-regulation.
Commercial Use of the Internet for
the Sexual Exploitaiton, part 1