By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
A relationship is blooming.
A young, socially-awkward teen, seeking solace in the realm of the Internet, finds a friend. It’s a secret friend, hidden from parents, because nobody else could understand the way this friend does.
But the person on the other end of the user name isn’t another teen, and they definitely aren’t a friend.
“You don’t get the guy in the park anymore saying, ‘I’ve got candy in my van.’ Now, they’re online and they can take their time grooming,” says Det. Const. Jeff Lockwood, a member of Durham police’s Internet Child Exploitation (ICE) unit.
And those first conversations are exactly how it starts, Lockwood says
“They’ll have long conversations about, ‘you’re my secret friend’ and ‘nobody understands you like I do,’ and they’ll look for kids online who are talking about things like anxiety and depression, who are vulnerable, and they use that against them,” he says.
And unlike the proverbial man in the park, the interactions with these potential criminals takes place in a virtually limitless landscape.
“I don’t think anybody knows the full extent (of the problem), just because the Internet is so vast,” Lockwood says. “I think we’re also aware that despite our best efforts, we just can’t monitor the entire Internet, so I think we at least know there’s a significant amount going on that we just can’t get to…I don’t know how much that is.”
Luring and the rising numbers
In 2002, for the first time, the Criminal Code of Canada addressed online luring of those under 18 for sexual purposes, and since then, police services have been trying to keep up with how to address this growing issue.
According to data from Statistics Canada, police reported incidents of luring increased 1.5 times from 2005 to 2006 and then an additional 31 per cent in 2007.
More troubling is that between 2009 and 2013, the DRPS recorded a 133 per cent increase in these incidents.
The numbers only continue to rise, The Oshawa Express has learned.
In 2013, Durham’s ICE unit investigated 121 incidents. That number increased to 149 in 2014, and then again to 202 in 2015.
The causes of such an increase are numerous, says Andrea Slane, an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at Oshawa’s University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Slane, who has published multiple articles on the subject and been involved with research for Public Safety Canada, says the uptake in technology, the fact that younger generations are taking to technology at a younger age, and an increasing awareness all play a role in the seemingly sky-rocketing accounts of child luring since the charge was introduced in 2002.
“When we started out, it was quite common for people to think, ‘I don’t know at all what my kids are doing online,’” Slane says.
However, that is no longer the case, as the prevalence of smartphones and Internet usage continues to rise, so does the awareness of parents, Lockwood says.
“I think parents are catching on more now,” he says. “I think there’s been a lot of initiatives from the government and police to let parents know, you need to be checking your kids devices, monitoring their social media, seeing what they’re saying.”
But the problem is youth are not just in one place online. New smartphone apps to communicate with others, sometimes anonymously, are continuously appearing, and every time they do, the numbers jump.
“When Snapchat came out, we saw a jump. when Kik came out, we saw a jump. I think just with this younger generation now, it’s become so commonplace, that it’s kind of boosted our numbers a little bit,” Lockwood says.
Snapchat is a photo sharing app that allows users to send images and videos for others to view for a limited period of time, while Kik is a chat-based app with similar capabilities.
Another factor, Slane says, is that increasing skill of police in the virtual world.
“I think they’ve gotten quite good at those kinds of investigations,” she says.
Tracking and the fine line
In 2005, the province created a strategy that led to the creation of ICE units across Ontario for addressing the issue of online luring as well as child pornography. These units now have standardized procedures and training for dealing with different situations.
The ICE units also have varying tactics for dealing with a suspected predator, and in a way, some are like fighting fire with fire.
The majority of calls come from parents who are reporting suspicious activity on their child’s social media or other online accounts. If further followup warrants an investigation, officers may take the next step.
“With their consent, we’ll do an account takeover. We’ll just jump in their place essentially, using their account and start chatting with whoever has approached them,” Lockwood says.
So, in the same way the person on the other end of the computer is hiding who they really are, the young person they think they’re talking with is actually an ICE detective.
ICE investigators also use more proactive approaches for finding these would-be predators, but it’s a tightrope walk with taking a criminal off the streets on one side, and entrapment on the other.
Officers will also search Craigslist and personal ads for specific key words that could trigger action.
“If we’re proactively looking for somebody, it has to be specific. They have to have an ad that’s, ‘any age’ kind of thing…then we can respond to that ad under the guise of whatever persona it is.”
For obvious reasons, the topic of entrapment is a common one when Lockwood and other ICE unit members meet for training, he says.
To avoid such issues, officers will spend time online observing, and waiting for others to contact them.
“I just hang around in chat rooms,” Lockwood says. “I don’t talk to anybody, and if somebody starts chatting with me and reveals, ‘oh listen, I know I said I was 17, but I’m 40,’ well, they’ve initiated in that case.”
And it’s safe to say, the hours of an ICE detective are far from standard.
“I’m chatting throughout the day, and then I take the phone home at night and I’m chatting well into the early hours of the morning with some of these people,” Lockwood says.
Currently, one of Lockwood’s personas includes that of a fictitious 14-year-old girl who is active on social media.
The father of two young girls, Lockwood has been in the unit for more than two years, and while dreading the day his daughters want to start using social media, he says his work is no more impactful than that of other officers.
“I think police officers just see unpleasant things all the time,” he says. “There are rough moments.”
However, the ICE unit does differ from others, he says.
“There’s such a difference when you arrest somebody who is a potential threat to a child, that the job satisfaction is really high in here and that outweighs any kind of trauma you’re going to inflict on yourself,” he says.
Apps and the changing times
Most recently, residents of Oshawa were alarmed by the fact that a 40-year-old Bowmanville man was allegedly using his job in several city arenas to meet young boys, one of whom was a 12-year-old from York Region.
The man, using the fake profile of a young woman, befriended the boy and their conversations eventually turned sexual.
After noticing the chats, the boy’s mother reported it to the police, leading to the man’s arrest earlier this year.
While police have seen the fake-profile gambit before, Lockwood says what’s difficult is keeping up with the ever expanding amount of programs youth are using to communicate.
“We’re always trying to catch up and trying to keep up with these new apps is impossible,” he says. “It’s moving so fast we’re constantly trying to keep up with our skills.”
And as important as new skills in learning new apps and programs can be, sometimes, the investigations boil down to simple interaction to gleam details about a potential criminal.
“It’s just a matter of trying to get tiny details about their life and trying to figure out who they are,” Lockwood says. “That can be frustrating, but that’s police work.”
According to Slane, the police may soon have a new issue to deal with in location-based dating apps such as Tinder or Grindr.
“(They’re) the new frontier that I think is a little more frightening,” she says. “Those services really need to be called upon to police the boundaries of the ages of the people that get on there.”
Both apps allow users to connect with people they choose to “match” with and then can initiate conversations with the person. Lockwood says the police have only begun to address these apps, but they present another problem.
“Those apps, I think, can be very risky for adults or for children because you don’t know who you’re meeting…and you’re giving them your location.
“I just wish I could go back to the time before cell phones,” Lockwood says.