Academic journal article International Journal of Cyber Criminology

Undercover Online: An Extension of Traditional Policing in the United States

Academic journal article International Journal of Cyber Criminology

Undercover Online: An Extension of Traditional Policing in the United States

Article excerpt


The virtual world has been increasingly impacting all aspects of interpersonal relationships. Computers are highly relevant in nearly all aspects of life and are frequently used to facilitate personal relationships. For example, there are many individuals who now use the internet to join online social networks, and even to establish romantic and/or sexual relationships. This is particularly the case with today's adolescents who use Facebook©, MySpace(TM), Twitter(TM), and the wide variety of network communities for socializing with hundreds, if not thousands, of others throughout the world. An estimated 14 million youth, ages 12-17 years, were using social networking sites (SNSs) in 2006 (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Jones, & Wolak, 2010).

The internet offers a world of anonymity which can have both positive and negative consequences. The internet provides individuals the ability to explore possible problems (physical, mental, sexual, and social, etc.) and gain the support of others in the privacy of their own home. In the same way, it also offers individuals the chance to explore interests that may or may not be approved of by society. Therefore, while the virtual social world brings many individuals satisfaction, there can be problematic social encounters. This may be especially true concerning youth because even though current preteens and teenagers are sophisticated in the use of technology, they are likely to be fairly unsophisticated when it comes to social relationships and virtual communities. As such, there may be many adolescents who can be easily duped by manipulative adults. These youth can readily be ensnared in a world where they become victims of older predators masquerading as the adolescent's peers (Walsh & Wolak, 2005; Young, 1997).

Increasingly, these individuals have come to the attention of law enforcement agencies that have developed task forces to catch online predators or, at a minimum, make it more difficult for them to prey on young people. These officers often will go online, join SNSs, sit in chat rooms, and pose as young teenagers in order to snag online sexual predators (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2005a).

The focus of the present study is those individuals (referred to forthwith as law enforcement personnel [LEP]) who work to catch online sexual predators with the goal of examining their views about their jobs, their strategies for catching online predators, and their training. As such, this analysis seeks to describe the job of these LEP who work undercover online to try and make the internet a safer place.

Literature Review

Research has found a link between sexual offending in the "real" world and solicitation for sex in the virtual world. Walsh and Wolak (2005) found that "more than a quarter of the online sexual predators had prior arrests for nonsexual offenses, and nine percent had prior arrests for sexual offenses against minors. Three percent of sexual assault defendants were registered sex offenders at the time of their crimes" (p. 264), and the majority of the defendants had met their victims on the internet.

These internet-initiated crimes followed a common pattern in which offenders met victims in chat rooms and developed relationships, which were often romantic or sexual, lasted a period of a month or longer, and involved communicating via chat rooms, emails, and instant messages (Walsh & Wolak, 2005). Grooming is a method that is used by online sexual predators to lure the children they meet. The grooming process has been described as a way of blurring the lines between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors (Fleming, Greentree, Cocotti-Muller, Elias, & Morrison, 2006). This process gradually shifts material or contact that a child or adolescent considers inappropriate to something they accept (Young, 1997). The predator attempts to gain the affection, interest, and trust of the victim and is sometimes considered to be a friend or even a mentor to the young person (Conte, Wolf, & Smith, 1989; Young, 1997). …

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