Shining a Light on the Darkweb
A 13-year-old girl met someone she thought was her age in an online chatroom. After nearly a year corresponding with this person, the young girl agreed to meet the “fellow teen” around the corner from her house.
What she discovered was the other 13-year-old turned out to be a 38-year-old man who coerced her into his van and abducted her, drove her back to his home and proceeded to rape and abuse her over a four-day period. The man filmed the acts and streamed the video online for others to view.
This isn’t a movie synopsis. This was a real-life case involving Alicia Kozakiewicz from Pittsburgh, Pa., who, on New Year’s Day 2002, was abducted by Scott Tyree of Herndon, Va. Since her horrifying experience, Kozakiewicz has become a champion of internet safety and a missing persons advocate. She also founded the Alicia Project, an advocacy group designed to raise awareness about online predators, abduction and child sexual exploitation. Her story has been featured on several network news programs, such as Good Morning America, CNN, MSNBC and A&E Biography Channel.
Her story, and many others like it, spur on a dedicated group of detectives with the Kentucky State Police’s Electronic Crimes Branch, whose sole job is to combat the seedy side of social media and the internet.
If it is a social-media crime, chances are that a child has been victimized in some way, KSP Sgt. Craig Miller said.
“Every social-media case that I’ve worked, a child has been affected,” he said. “It may be a case where the child has been identified, been rescued and an arrest was made, but the image is out there. And there are many images out there of children who have not been identified, and that’s the biggest thing.”
According to enough.org, in 2014, 14 percent of teens reported friends have invited someone over whom they had only met online, and another 18 percent of teens have considered meeting someone in person whom they first met online.
Additionally, just 28 percent of parents have installed software on computers to prohibit certain website visitations; only 17 percent have such software on mobile devices, according to enough.org.
KSP’s Electronic Crimes Branch primarily deals with child exploitation, and keeping on top of the latest schemes of predators is a full-time job as technology and methodology constantly change, KSP Lt. Mike Bowling said.
“A lot of agencies are trying to catch up with technology,” Bowling said. “We all know that technology changes every day. It seems like every week there are more apps, and more people are using devices. Every Christmas, we give new phones, laptops and other computer devices to new users.”
Nowadays, it is common for children to carry smartphones and tablets such as iPads. They also have various social media accounts, and predators know this.Being social-media savvy is how they hunt.
“The people we arrest look for people online with open profiles, and a lot of information is available, pictures that are open and not private, that school background, that school letter jacket or the school shirt on or something like that,” Bowling said. “They also look for one compromising picture. If they get one, they’ve got that person hooked and they start the blackmail. They tell the person, ‘You’re going to send me 10 more pictures and some videos, or I’m going to send this picture to your parents, your school or something along those lines. Imagine the mindset of that child. They’re afraid to tell, but they’re also afraid to go along with what this person is saying.”
Many times, children begin online relationships with a predator on one site, and after a period of time, they are lured to a different app, such as Snapchat or KIK Messenger, where the predator can further manipulate them, Bowling said.
The reason is simple, many apps can be used to send videos and photos over WiFi, Bowling said.
In worst case scenarios, this leads to human trafficking.
“I’ve not worked a human-trafficking case, but I’ve attended training where I’ve heard about people targeting children,” Miller said. “This is happening. Those involved in human trafficking are targeting children; they’re on Facebook, and they are luring children and coaxing them to come and meet, and unfortunately, they’re getting kidnapped, and they’re put into the world of child-sex trafficking.”
While the Electronic Crimes Branch primarily focuses on crimes involving children, cybercrime doesn’t have an age limit, as plenty of other victims are targeted.
From cyber-bullying to scams, the internet is a haven for a criminal to victimize people, Miller said, recalling a case where an older gentleman was scammed out of his life savings because he was told he won a large sum of money, but in order to collect, he had to pay various legal fees.
“The man ended up sending so much money, that the clerks at the store refused to fill anymore Western Union (money) orders from him because they knew he was being scammed,” Miller said. “That’s how I came across (the case). He was so focused that he was going to get the money from these people, that he sent them his entire savings.”
According to the FBI’s 2017 Internet Crime Report (2.6MB PDF), people over the age of 60 were victimized to the tune of more than $342.5 million.
Cyberbullying is another disturbing trend, Miller and Bowling said.
“When I was a kid, bullying typically happened at school and it stayed at school,” Miller said. “With social media, it happens in-person at school, and when a child goes home, the bullying goes home with them. The unfortunate part of the internet is it is there all the time. The only way to stop it is by reporting it to school officials and law enforcement and us stepping in, or parents handling it properly, and appropriately.”
It’s no secret that bullying affects a child’s psyche.
“If you think about a child’s mentality; they want to feel loved, they want to feel secure and they want to feel safe,” Bowling added. “You have all of these people coming at them on various social media sites and jumping on the bandwagon, for lack of a better term, and being that keyboard warrior trying to harass one person. It’s very burdensome, and it causes severe depression and problems. It’s a huge problem.”
Thieves are also using social media to lure unsuspecting victims.
“People are selling an iPhone for $150 and someone says, ‘That’s a good deal,’ so they agree to meet at a location, and people are getting robbed,” Miller said. “I haven’t worked any of those, but I’ve had (law enforcement officers) call and ask if I can help track down IPs. It’s very broad, as far as crimes on social media. It’s a new trend.”
Ahead of the Curve
Having an unbridled passion to keep up with trends, in terms of new social media sites and technology trends, is a must in order for law enforcement to stay on top of cybercrime.
“Every day, if not every hour, technology is changing and we have to adjust with it,” Bowling said. “This is what we call being hungry and never being complacent. Go to conferences and attend training. If we stay on top of what is current, we’ll be ready for anything that comes our way.”
Additionally, go to the source, Bowling said. Meaning, talk to those using the various social media apps to see what is hot.
“When I go to schools, I talk to the kids,” Bowling said. “I tell them, ‘My presentation is about this, but what are you on?’ They’ll tell me stuff I haven’t heard of or they’ll tell me something like Snapchat is back in when we thought it was out. The kids will tell you. Plus, cyber-tips, we get those through electronic service providers and I’ll see it every month. The cyber-tips give an indication of what is hot – it changes every day.”
Education is Key
While KSP has resources 100 percent devoted to this issue, many smaller agencies simply don’t have the personnel to dedicate on a full-time basis. But that doesn’t mean they are helpless.
Education – teaching children, parents and guardians – is one of the best tools an agency, no matter the size, has in its arsenal, KSP Capt. Jeremy Murrell said.
“Education plays a huge role in combating this because we’re getting more and more self-production, and that means kids are the ones taking pictures,” he said. “Whether they’re groomed or convinced to do it, or if they’re sending it to their boyfriend or girlfriend, it gets out from there. Now we have victims producing child pornography.”
One of the best messages KSP or any department can stress is the importance of parental or guardian involvement in the lives of children.
“We live in a society where we spend most of our time buried in a phone, or buried in an iPad or buried in a TV. It comes back to Andy Griffith – Mayberry times,” Bowling said. “We need to sit around a table, we need to talk and be involved.”
I tell (parents) when your child turns 16, would you hand them the keys to a Corvette and walk back in the house and say have fun?” Bowling said. “Nobody has raised their hand and said yes. That’s because you would give them instruction and you’d watch them and monitor them. You would also set times for them to be back home, you’d ride with them every so often … you would monitor them almost like you would an infant child. It’s the same way with the internet.”
Having well-established rules of who they can friend and where they can have the device.
“Even then, there’s going to be a minority who are going to try to bypass that,” Bowling said. “They’re the ones who are going to get up in the middle of the night and get the device and things like that. Still, it’s always best to have a common area in the house to use those devices, know the child’s password and know who they friend on social media.”
Also, know who your children “friend” on these sites.
Many of these ideas seem simple enough but are often overlooked, but rest assured, predators are doing their due diligence in stalking and learning everything they can about the child.
“If you see your child has 500 friends on Facebook, ask yourself, ‘Do they know 500 people?” Bowling said. “I would say probably not. If you can’t touch them, then why are you adding them? A lot of the times what we see involving a school, if somebody is looking to exploit a child, if they get one person to friend, they can get more because friends will add because this friend added. Once they get into the school system and start learning about people, it goes from there.”
Aside from preaching the education message, there are other tools any agency can use.
“There are some training materials,” Bowling said. “They can go to netsmartz.org, it has materials to look at. They also can go to the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, that’s missingkids.org, and there’s a lot of information under the law enforcement tab of the site. If you’re talking to members of your community, you can instruct them on how to make a cyber-tip on that website. Those two (websites) alone are very beneficial.”
The Kentucky State Police Electronic Crimes Branch is also a ready and willing resource, Bowling said.
“We are here as a resource. If we can point somebody in the right direction, we will,” he said. “We don’t necessarily want to feed people fish. We want to teach people to fish. We want to give them the tools and we’ll walk you through it from start to finish … we’ll even help you type the report so you’ll get that first one under your belt. We don’t care if you’re a one-person department or a department of 1,200. We’re here to help.”
Additionally, don’t get discouraged if the audience size is small, Bowling said.
“I’ve presented to one person before at a school,” he said. “One person showed up and I set my computer and equipment up and presented to that one person. I’ve also presented to 1,800 people at a school. So it doesn’t matter to us; we’ll present the material because it needs to be heard.”
ICAC Task Force
In addition to the above, a nationally-recognized means of battling the issue of cybercrime is through the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program, which KSP is a member.
ICAC is a network of 61 coordinated task forces representing more than 4,500 federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. ICAC’s mission is to “continually engage in proactive and reactive investigations and prosecutions of persons involved in child abuse and exploitation over the internet,” according to icactaskforce.org.
“The Kentucky State Police is the ICAC Task Force head for the Commonwealth,” Bowling said. “We get between 150 to 200 tips a month from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s cyber-tip line. Each one of those tips is a complaint. Complaints can be from an internet service provider or someone reporting to the cyber-tip line.”
Each complaint is a “call” that has to be answered, Bowling added.
“We’re staying really busy doing reactive complaints – cyber tips, call in complaints, calls from KSP Post or helping other agencies,” Bowling said. “We would love to get out there in these chat rooms and be proactive. We’re growing and getting to where we need to be, but we’re really busy and we could always use more help.”
KSP employs 10 dedicated KSP detectives and utilizes 30 affiliated agencies – local and federal law enforcement agency that works with KSP on the task force – across the state. In addition to the detectives and affiliated agencies, KSP has two sworn forensics officers and five additional civilian forensics experts.
Between 2012 and 2017, the Kentucky State Police Electronic Crimes Branch received 6,351 cyber-tips, which resulted in 297 cases being opened, 396 search warrants executed and 191 arrests for a myriad of crimes against children, and that keeps its detectives hopping.
“If we get a call about some other internet complaint, we will direct it to the local KSP post or Louisville (Metro) or Lexington (Police Department) (if it comes from one of those cities),” Bowling said. “Now we will assist with those, if we can, but we stay so busy with child exploitation, we just don’t have the personnel to work every internet crime.
“We have a forensics side, which does the examinations of the evidence, and we have an investigative side, which does proactive and reactive investigations for crimes against children,” Bowling continued. “Right now, we could give 100 different complaints to 100 different troopers. There is that much activity out there.”
Additionally, the task force isn’t limited by state borders, Murrell said.
“It’s really a big team and a force multiplier for us,” he said. “Alabama (authorities) called us with two hands-on offenses that were occurring in Louisville, and we are able to go and look into that. And that works vice-versa. If we came across an offense that is happening somewhere else and we needed an interview done today, we can call any of the other ICAC task forces in the nation and have people interviewed today.”
The main reason the task force works in near perfect harmony is the subject matter, Murrell added.
“I mean, if it was a nationwide burglary task force, and the phone rings at four in the morning, and the person on the other end says, ‘This guy has committed 500 burglaries and we need him interviewed today,’ we’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’ll get to that …’ But when we say someone is molesting a kid and videotaping it and putting it on the internet, that gets everybody’s undivided attention.”
By adhering to the same standards, the methods remain the same, which creates a smooth transition when one agency hands off a case to another.
“It’s very fluid … it’s like a ripple in a wave in that it can reach many places quickly,” Bowling said. “We are bound by ICAC standards to work an investigation the same way across the nation. I may start an investigation here in Frankfort and eventually hand it off to Louisville Metro, and they’ll work it the same way I did. It’s the same no matter if you’re in Kentucky, California or Canada. That is what is great about Internet Crimes Against Children. I would say it leads the way in any type of investigation with the ability to hand that case off to another investigator.”
Though the “team” is large, Murrell said there is still plenty of room for other agencies – no matter the size – to join the task force.
“Some of the larger agencies like Lexington and Louisville are affiliated with us, and that’s simply because they have more resources,” Murrell said. “Smaller agencies are limited simply because of numbers. They don’t have the manpower. If an agency is interested in joining the ICAC task force, it doesn’t cost them anything. We have grants for equipment, and it’s something we can discuss on a case-by-case basis.”
By joining the task force, Murrell said it is a strength in numbers situation.
“It’s a force multiplier for us and it hastens the response,” he said. “We have a full-service digital forensics lab available to all agencies at no cost to them. We are here to aid and assist. As the commander here, I don’t care if you’re proactive or reactive. I’ll train you either way.”
There is never too much help, Miller added.
“I’ve been here since February 2015, and I know the people we deal with and we’ve successfully apprehended, and knowing how many more people are out there and there are not enough people doing this work,” he said. “That’s the big eye-opener for me. Coming here, I knew there was a lot of (cybercrime) out there, but I didn’t how much there actually was until I got here.”
No doubt that Alicia Kozakiewicz suffered greatly in early 2002, Murrell said.
“To show you how lucky she was, one of the guys who was watching (the porn) on the internet, maybe like-minded as Scott Tyree, actually called from a pay phone (from Florida),” Murrell said. “He had seen her flyer from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, so he called the hotline, and he admitted watching it as fantasy. But as he was watching it, he thought it was egregious enough to call it in. The ICAC from northern Virginia/Washington, D.C. area and the FBI kicked in the door and saved her.”
This case raised the much-needed awareness on this issue, and as a result many states, including Kentucky, have passed Alicia’s Law.
“We got Alicia’s Law passed in Kentucky in 2015,” Murrell said. “The law allows for a $10 fine for a misdemeanor or felony, no matter what it is, and that money goes to the ICAC Task Force. So we have our federal ICAC grant and we have Alicia’s Law (money) here in Kentucky. It’s a force multiplier for us (and) it allows us to buy equipment for the task force and training for our members.”
Those agencies wishing to become a “force multiplier” for the task force can call Capt. Murrell at 502-782-9769 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.