View the article here
It wasn't hard for state prosecutors to discover nearly 150 convicted New Jersey sex offenders were using MySpace. Putting them behind bars, however, won't be easy.
Although investigators are eager to know if these offenders used the social networking Web site to lure children, arresting and convicting online predators is a complex and often frustrating business.
The anonymity of the Internet helps predators mask their identities. Wireless networks and worldwide computer servers make tracing them equally challenging. So do jurisdictional issues – investigators in one state may not have the legal authority to follow the electronic trail elsewhere. And it's hard to collect evidence.
Theresa Curreri of Wayne learned all of that firsthand. When her son received a creepy, unsolicited e-mail on his MySpace page, she became suspicious.
"This was supposed to be from a woman in her mid-20s – he was 12 or 13 at the time," Curreri recalled.
She turned the e-mail over to a police officer, who informed her that the message stopped short of breaking the law. The most the officer could do, she said, was counsel her son to be wary of online messages from strangers.
"It's absolutely frustrating and it's kind of discouraging as a parent," said Curreri, a former Wayne school board president.
The state Attorney General's Office recently launched a wide-ranging probe into sex offenders who use social networking Web sites. And last week, it said it had discovered 141 of New Jersey's registered sex offenders using MySpace.
But the state will need to do more than just prove a convicted sex offender was using a social networking Web site to win a conviction. Prosecutors first will need to convince a judge they have specific information or "probable cause" that an offender committed a crime online.
If successful, a judge may issue a search warrant, which would permit investigators to seize records of a suspected predator's past online conversations, said Scott S. Christie, a former federal prosecutor and computer crime expert in Newark.
"The normal route in order to get content information from an Internet service provider is to use a search warrant," Christie said. Showing that a crime occurred before examining online chats "can be a difficult burden to meet," he said.
Scrutinizing these old chat sessions might reveal whether an offender propositioned a minor online for sex or tried to arrange an rendezvous – activities which may constitute crimes.
The attorney general's office now only has basic information about subscribers, such as the names used to create the accounts and the electronic address of their providers. State prosecutors say they are pursuing the case, but declined to discuss its challenges.
"We want to know what these sex offenders were doing on the Internet and whether they've engaged in activities that are criminal or violates the terms of the parole or probation," said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the attorney general's office. "It would not be appropriate, however, to discuss our specific tactics."
One avenue appears fairly easy. Of the 141 convicted sex offenders using MySpace, 43 are on parole, officials said. Getting records of their Internet chats would pose less of a challenge.
"Parolees give up some of their [constitutional] rights ... and are subject to searches of their residences," Christie said.
One parole condition often imposed on sex offenders is a ban on communicating with minors. If they violate this ban, they violate their parole and can be sent back to prison.
Since the majority of the convicted offenders are no longer on parole, however, investigators will have a tougher time of finding out how they used the Web site.
First, they have to determine the true identity of the person holding the MySpace account. People can use aliases to create online accounts and pay for them with stolen credit card numbers or other payment services that make it difficult to track someone through financial transactions.
And once authorities have the name, tracing communications back to the person who actually wrote them is also complex, experts say. Often, more than one person shares a home computer. Internet access lines may be shared, too.
"Even after ... a thorough analysis of all the information is conducted, there is rarely enough probable cause established to request a search warrant on the customers' residence," Raul O. Roldan, chief of the FBI's cyber division, testified to Congress last year.
Then there are jurisdictional hurdles to be cleared. If an online predator lives in New Jersey, but the computer server used by his Internet service provider is in Texas, investigators need their out-of-state counterparts to get a warrant through those out-of-state courts, experts say.
Given all these impediments, experts say, investigators often prefer to pose as juveniles, enter into Internet chats with online predators and catch them in the act of soliciting sex from a minor.
One in seven young people using the Internet were the recipients of unwanted sexual solicitations or approaches, according to a study released last year by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Richard Kuder, principal of Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff, said it's very difficult for parents to keep track of their children on social networking sites.
"No matter how vigilant you are, our kids are often one step ahead," Kuder said.
He said the best way for parents to keep their children safe online is to apply these rules: Don't talk to strangers and don't give personal information to people you don't know.
Sunday, July 8, 2007
Prosecution of online predators often difficult
View the article here