Virginia firm donates computer tool that can trace criminals.
Online predators beware. That innocent 13-year-old girl or boy in a chat room might actually be a Lancaster County detective.
Local law-enforcement officers will soon go online as decoys, seeking to arrest sexual prowlers by employing sophisticated technology donated by the Virginia-based Safe Surfin’ Foundation.
“We have to track down these predators and put them behind bars,” said Randall E. Smith Jr., the foundation’s education director. “Once a child is victimized, they’re never the same.”
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman thanked the foundation at a morning press conference Friday.
The Cop in a Box technology is valued at $3,200, Smith said. Lancaster County was the second in the state to receive the donation.
The county commissioners also have agreed to hire an additional civilian computer analyst next July to help man the Computer Crime Unit’s new chat-room initiative.
To date, the computer task force’s focus has been online child pornography, Stedman said. Now investigators will have the technology to be effective online decoys.
Ephrata Detective Brad Ortenzi is the first member of the computer crime unit to undergo Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) training on targeting online child predators.
“We enter into a chat room posing as a young child,” he said. “Once we enter that chat room, we don’t solicit anything. We wait, and normally it doesn’t take long until (predators) come to us.”
Ortenzi said the technology allows investigators to obtain the suspect’s Internet protocol address almost immediately. The IP address is unique to each computer. Police can then seek a court order to obtain the name of the subscriber.
“That’s going to get us the person whose name is on the bill and the address,” Ortenzi said.
Stedman said an Internet user may break the law by sharing sexual materials with a minor, soliciting sex from a minor or taking steps to meet the minor for a sexual encounter.
If the suspect does not live in Lancaster County, detectives here will contact an ICAC-trained officer in the subscriber’s hometown to investigate the case.
Ortenzi said the special training he received was eye-opening. He said he and about 40 other trainees created profiles and entered a chat room. Within 20 minutes, Ortenzi said, half of the class was in conversation with men showing their genitals.
“That is not an exaggeration,” Ortenzi said. “We could have 20 detectives running this full time and still not combat the problem. It’s bad.”
Financial support for Cop in a Box came from the Pennsylvania Moose Association, Smith said.