On Jan. 12, a detective with the Charleston County Sheriff's Department was allegedly contacted online by a West Ashley man. According to a court affidavit, the detective was posing undercover as a 14-year-old girl when the two began to talk. After exchanging texts and chatting on a mobile app, the suspect allegedly planned a meeting with the detective's underage persona for the morning of Jan. 20. The detective stated the meeting was scheduled for a time when the girl's "mother" would be away from home. Leading up to that date, court documents state the suspect requested various naked photos of the girl.
The night before they were to meet, the suspect allegedly detailed the sexual acts he would like to perform. At approximately 10:10 a.m. the following day, affidavits state the man was apprehended at the agreed upon location and confessed to arranging the meeting in order to have sex with the girl. Officers found three condoms in his possession.
Unfortunately, cases such as this are not isolated incidents and local law enforcement agencies say the number of cyber crimes is on the rise. In 2011, the South Carolina Attorney General's Office Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force handled 127 documented complaints of "enticement" and child pornography.
"It's one of those things where people think that just because they're on their computer and they don't have that face-to-face contact, they're not committing a crime," says Lt. Andre Jenkins, Special Investigations Unit commander with the Charleston Police Department. "You have parents who have young kids who are always on the internet or always on these new apps that come out on their phone. That's how these guys meet these individuals."
According to Jenkins, he sees about five or six cases of cyber crime a month that are local to the Charleston area. And when these cases are investigated by the Charleston Police Department, that duty falls to Detective Doug Galluccio, task force officer with Homeland Security Investigations and full-time investigator for the city's Cyber Crimes Division.
"I'd say primarily the war really is more against the child pornography distribution and manufacturing and that type of thing," says Galluccio, who coordinates his efforts with state and federal agencies, as well as detectives in Charleston, Berkeley, and Dorchester counties. "It's everything from the kids getting solicited for naked pictures of themselves. It can even be from a boyfriend or girlfriend and turn into a blackmail situation, and that turns into passing it along to ending up on adult sites."
Researchers from the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire estimate that approximately 8,144 suspects were arrested nationwide in 2009 for technology-facilitated child exploitation. Of those cases, an estimated 1,317 involved solicitations to undercover investigators posing online as minors and 2,353 resulted from officers posing as traders of child pornography and monitoring file-sharing networks. An estimated 1,900 arrests were made by U.S. law enforcement agencies in 2009 for crimes involving the production of child pornography — almost five times the number reported in 2000. Much of this increase is attributed to the rise in "youth-produced sexual images," which are photos taken by the minors themselves. Almost 40 percent of suspects arrested in these cases had enticed minors to provide explicit photos or videos of themselves. Researchers also found that more than half of all child-pornography producers arrested in 2009 also committed physical offenses.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the organization has received a growing number of reports concerning incidents of "sextortion," which are cases in which minors are coerced or blackmailed into providing sexual images. The group examined more than 800 of these reports received on its CyberTipline between October 2013 and June 2015 and found that the average age of children involved is 15. Typically, offenders begin communicating with the child on a social networking site before moving the conversation to messaging apps. Once offenders receive photos or videos from their targets, they will commonly threaten to share that material online in order to pressure the minor into providing more, increasingly explicit material. With the rise of online messaging platforms, many of which attract users based on the promise of anonymity, the challenge of tracking possible suspects becomes increasingly difficult for officers.
"The problem with law enforcement is that a new app is created all the time. There's Yik Yak and Kik Messenger and ooVoo. There are all these different apps that have all these different types of technologies where you can shoot video, take pictures, and share information. They all come into play with a lot of the things we deal with here on a daily basis," says Galluccio. "There are days when I walk into the office and say, 'OK, I've never experienced any kind of activity on something like this, so we're going to go down this road today.' That's how quickly things move. Big Brother can't always be watching. I don't have that kind of time. It requires doing undercover investigations on top of reacting to whatever is out there."
With kids spending more and more time online, it has become increasingly important for parents to remain informed about possible threats. Disabling smartphone apps that broadcast users' locations and reporting any questionable communications are just a few recommendations for parents. But in addition to attempting to monitor a child's internet activity, open communication remains the most important methods of keeping kids safe.
"There are risks associated with how children are communicating digitally. It really requires that parents be educated about the types of apps that their children are using and who they are communicating with and through what means," says Cindy McElhinney, director of programs with Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that offers guidance on protect ing kids from sexual abuse. "One of the most important things is that we have conversations with our kids about what can happen when they use a digital device and the consequences of putting certain things out on a digital device. If you put something out there, you have to know that it's public. Even if you think you're only sending it to one person, that's becoming public and permanent. You can't take it back."
During his time investigating cyber crimes, Galluccio says most social media sites are cooperative when it comes to assisting law enforcement. In a recent case that involved an anonymous online threat to carry out a shooting at West Ashley High School, the detective was able to quickly track down the suspect by working with the developer of the app used to post the message. But even with the help of developers, detectives face long-term investigations and must walk a fine line between capturing criminals and entrapping the innocent. According to the South Carolina Supreme Court, those facing charges can claim entrapment if the suspect "would not have perpetrated [the crime] except for trickery, persuasion, or fraud of the officer."
In 2008, an Upstate man convicted of soliciting a minor appealed the court's decision, arguing that he was entrapped because an undercover agent initiated their first online conversation. Recently, sting operations conducted by some law enforcement agencies have come under fire for predatory practices. A 2014 investigation by WTSP-TV found that Florida officers were contacting men through online adult dating sites and steering the topic of conversation to sex with minors. In the 2008 South Carolina case, the state Supreme Court denied the defendant's appeal. While the undercover SLED agent may have started the conversation, the defendant was sure to remind the object of his affection to keep their relationship secret, saying, "Guys my age aren't supposed to date girls under 18," according to court documents.
In addition to wrestling with ethical concerns, investigators must also deal with the personal toll of tracking the exploitation of children every day. From the reality of online sexual offenders to the threat of active shooters, Detective Galluccio says every lead must be taken seriously, but that level of focus can weigh heavily on officers trying to monitor the sea of activity online. While the work may be grueling at times, he manages to remain motivated by remembering who he's out to protect.
"It's rough. I have young children, myself," Galluccio says. "Everybody asks, 'How do you do this?' I've been doing this for six years now, and I guess you learn to block things out. I go home and I hug my kids extra that day. They're my driving factor. My job is to protect children from having their innocence stolen."