KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A task force dedicated to keeping child predators off the streets said the number of leads it has received in the Kansas City area this year is higher than average.
In one year, the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force usually receives about 400 tips. In the first four months of 2019, it has opened nearly 300 cases.
For the first time, the task force allowed a news crew into its cyber lab. The office is in the basement of the Platte County Sheriff’s Office.
First created in 2006, the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force consists of a team of nine investigators who use super computers to follow leads in a 27-county region from the Iowa border to the Kansas City metro. Most leads come from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The detectives said predators use seemingly innocent apps that are popular with the age group they’re targeting.
Here’s what parents should be aware of:
- Predators target any app in which users create videos.
- Smule, an app that records and shares video of users singing karaoke, is an example of an innocent app predators can use entice children.
- Any app with a chat feature can be an “in” for a predator.
- Mainstream apps like Instagram have both video and chat functions
- Popular games like Fortnite allow users to speak with strangers
- LiveMe is a video chat app that promotes talking random people using cameras on tablets and smartphones.
“That's one of our challenges because it's an ever-evolving area. We try to stay one step ahead of the perpetrators and it's very difficult. As you know, technology is constantly changing,” said Captain Woodrow Painter from the Platte County Sheriff's Office. He oversees the task force.
Detectives in the task force suggested parents set guidelines with their children early on, and make sure children know they’ll be checking their phones and computers. The task force encourages parents to speak with children about the dangers of chatting with strangers online.
“It's prevalent out there, we have to be vigilant in telling our kids, ‘Because we care about you as parents, we are going to look through your stuff, we're going to make sure you're safe.’ It might not always be popular, but as a parent sometimes your job is not to be your kid's best friend, it's to keep them safe,” said an undercover detective in the unit who requested not to be identified.
Detectives said nearly every child predator uses apps to “groom” their victims. But with the laws currently in place, grooming by itself isn’t always enough for the task force to build a case to put a predator in jail.
Detectives with the cyber crimes task force usually charge suspects with enticement, but detectives said that legal definition is very narrow.
If Missouri created a law prohibiting grooming, the undercover detective said he thinks law enforcement could get more predators off the internet.
A grooming law outlaws a lot of the tactics and strategies predators use to reach children.
“When you do get somebody who is exploiting children and you get to put them in jail and tell that child they're safe and this person won't bother them again, it is by far the most gratifying thing I could ever think of in my life,” the undercover detective said.
Illinois has adopted an anti-grooming law aimed at protecting children.