MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - According to Amanda Mahan, a digital forensic analyst with Autauga County Sheriff’s Office, the first step a predator usually takes is to make seemingly harmless, friendly conversation with a young, unassuming victim online.
“They’ll groom these kids, make them think they’re their friend or they’ll be a mentor,” Mahan said. “Oftentimes, they’ll see that this girl or this boy hates their parents or they’re in a bad place with their life. Those are the people who are really at risk. The predators will come in to be that person, that attention, that these kids are seeking.”
Mahan said the “grooming” comes once trust is established. That, according to Mahan, usually leads to the predator coercing the victim to send sexual photos and videos. The more they send, Mahan said, the more the predator wants and the more aggressive they will be to get it.
“They will blackmail the victims into sending them things,” Mahan said.
Mahan is one of more than 3,000 law enforcement officers who have undergone training with the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC). The task force, led by the SBI’s Special Victims Unit Commander Lt. Brooke Walker, focuses on keeping data and tracking the active, reactive investigations and efforts to fight cyber crimes against children in Alabama. The group also holds training for law enforcement, prosecutors, doctors and other helpful professionals to equip them to help the victims and families.
In 2018, 842 more law enforcement agents were training and nearly 10,000 people attended a number of educational public events and community presentations.
“We come to work every day with the mindset that there is one more child we need to find and one more device we need to look through,” Walker said.
The unit is currently working more than 300 active cases across the state and is constantly scanning devices for sexually explicit images of minors. Last year, investigators searched more than 90,000 gigabytes after receiving more than 2,000 cyber tips in the state.
“We think we’re getting ahead of it, then we’ll see something,” Walker said. “We’ll come in contact with a suspect or see what’s on his computer or hear a victim’s story, and our minds are blown.”
While there are many cases where the images of the victims are produced by a predator, there are also a number of cases where children are taking the photos themselves and sending them.
“The youngest victim we have in Alabama right now is six." Walker said. “We also have a lot of seven and eight year-olds. They’re getting these phones, which I consider to be loaded weapons, and not having barriers to how they can use them."
Walker said in her 13 years of working in the department, she’s never come across a victim’s parent who was not shocked to learn their child was a victim to these types of crimes.
“If you have a device connected to the Internet, and you’re allowed to socialize with other people online, you’re automatically a target,” Mahan said.
Mahan said the more young people share online about their vulnerabilities like mental health issues, tough home circumstances and social struggles, the more appealing they are to predators.
“It’s the parent’s responsibility to monitor their kids,” Mahan said.
She said parents cannot afford to believe their children cannot fall victim to online predators. Also, if a parent discovers their child is a victim, Mahan said they must report it.
While being proactive is a large part of the ICAC’s mission, investigators work to go after predators who have already committed the crime. However, Mahan said there are a number of barriers to that.
“It’s the parent’s responsibility to continue the prosecution,” Mahan said. “A lot of times, we’re not seeing that. A lot of people backpedal because they think their child is going to have to testify against someone, and they don’t want that.”
Mahan also said parents who discover their children sending inappropriate photos and videos often battle with shame or not wanting their children to be charged with creating or sending child pornography.
Both Mahan and Walker said it’s imperative for parents to report any of these issues to law enforcement
“We are not in the business of making kids registered sex offenders,” Walker said.
“We know they’re being groomed,” Mahan said. “We know they are victims. We’re going after the predators and other potential victims.”
Walker, who uses a number of proactive methods to track down potential predators, said she usually finds multiple predators and victims with one case.
“With one case, I may find 30 to 60 predators,” Walker said. “That’s because they all associate with each other. They trade content and methods for grooming."
Mahan and Walker recommend parents regularly check their kids’ social media but also have open, honest dialogue with their kids so they don’t feel there is anything to hide. They also urge parents not to hesitate to report and inappropriate activity they find. They said it could save their child and many more.
Currently, there are nearly 60 law enforcement agencies enrolled in ICAC, including the Montgomery Police Department, Autauga County Sheriff’s Office, Prattville Police Department, Millbrook Police Department, Wetumpka Police Department, Tallasee Police Department, the Attorney General’s Office, Chilton County Sheriff’s Office, Auburn Police Department, Phenix City Police Department, Enterprise Police Department, Dothan Police Department, Daleville Police Department, Houston County Sheriff’s Office, Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Office and Alex City Police Department.
Participating agencies are responsible for reporting their data to ICAC for its records. Mahan encourages any agency wishing to join or any community group wanting to set up an informational meeting or event to reach out to her at email@example.com.