Police pose as predators on online stings
An AP Member Exchange Feature By TERI FINNEMAN
The Associated Press - Monday, August 04, 2008
Steve Harstad remembers the cold winter night when he first became a teenage girl.
Sitting at his computer, Harstad entered an Internet chat room. All it took was a few clicks on the keyboard to establish a new identity: that of a 13-year-old girl.
It didn't take long to make new friends.
Within two hours, a Fargo man struck up a flirtation with "her" as they exchanged typed messages. The man asked to meet in person the next day.
If he had shown up, he would have found himself surrounded by law enforcement and under arrest for Internet luring of a minor.
Harstad, 34, is a special agent for the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation in Bismarck.
Part of his job is to catch online child predators. That means getting in touch with his inner teenage girl a few times each month to see if anyone tries to solicit "her" for sex via the computer.
"I feel very strongly that crimes against children are the worst possible crime," Harstad said.
"To be a part of something that maybe I'm getting that guy put away, maybe I'm getting that guy before he gets to the next child, is very rewarding for me," he said.
But opponents of law enforcements' efforts say men are being set up and prosecuted for victimless crimes.
"I think they're ruining a lot of lives, I guarantee you that," said Darnell Hitterdal-Olson of Moorhead, whose 24-year-old son was arrested earlier this year for solicitation of a minor to engage in sexual contact.
"There's two sides to every story," she said.
Both Fargo and Moorhead police departments assign officers to investigate Internet luring.
But, like for Harstad, trying to find time for the work isn't easy when there are child abuse, child pornography and other computer forensic cases to get done.
"Unfortunately, a big portion of what we do is reactive, where somebody has brought us a case and the child has already been affected," Harstad said.
"We're working on and hopefully being fairly successful with getting to be more proactive."
Because of their ongoing work, officers can't disclose all of the details about how they find child predators online.
They also declined having photos of themselves published because they are involved in arrests and don't want to be recognized.
However, they can give an overview of their training and what it's like to talk online to men interested in minors.
For Harstad, it isn't too difficult to sound like a teenage girl when he's typing back and forth with someone online.
He has nieces and nephews who keep him connected to what's cool and how they talk. He also pays attention to what's new in music and popular on TV.
Since men often ask his teenage personality for a photo, BCI takes pictures of young women who work in the office.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children then transforms the photos through age regression or other alterations.
"You can't just randomly take a picture off the Internet," Harstad said of why the extra work is done to create the photos. "What if (a predator) runs into that child? We have to be pretty careful with that."
With his photos ready, Harstad also creates Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo and MSN accounts to add to the believability of his teenage personality.
So far, it works.
"I've never had anybody call me out. I've never had anybody say you're not who you say you are," Harstad said.
"In general, I'm trying to talk to somebody else who's 35 or 40. They don't necessarily know what a 13-year-old would be into. In general, I'm talking to somebody else who's as naive about it as I am, I guess."
The publicity of "To Catch a Predator" means it takes longer for men to suggest meeting the "minor," Harstad said. But the show hasn't deterred men from seeking out children online.
"They're not real smart. It's a disease. It's an addiction for them," he said.
Not all men want to meet. Some just want to chat, but all conversations are documented if they're needed in court.
Fargo police investigator Paula Ternes said it isn't easy for her to chat online with child predators.
"It's a very strange feeling, thinking that the person on the other end of that computer wants to harm a child," she said. "Even though we are police officers and we've seen a lot and done a lot, that's something I'll never get used to by any means."
Ternes, 41, has only spent 22 hours or so posing online as a young teenager since April. Other duties kept her too busy.
Yet she's started forming pages on social networking sites and developing her online teenage personality.
A few years ago, Fargo police assisted Perverted Justice a group that goes after child predators online by making four arrests, Ternes said.
Ternes also worked with Moorhead police this year to arrest Allen Duane Halstad, 24, of Moorhead.
Halstad pleaded guilty to going into an Internet chat room and speaking with individuals he believed to be 13-year-old girls for the purpose of engaging in sexual contact.
He was actually talking to Ternes and Moorhead Police Sgt. Mike Detloff.
Moorhead police have made two arrests and are working on several cases since starting undercover chatting in January, Detloff said.
Detloff, 36, does research at home to keep his online teenage personality believable.
He pays attention to his preteen daughter and her friends "so I can throw that drama back into my online identity." He also listens to Taylor Swift and watches "Hannah Montana."
Men involved in the chats include college students, businessmen and "worthless bums," Detloff said. Conversations can turn dirty within minutes, and some men will use Web cams to show sexual images, he said.
"It's not uncommon for me to be having six conversations at one time," Detloff said.
His recent promotion in the department means another officer will soon take on the online chatting. He hopes efforts and funding to catch child predators will increase.
"This is a priority for us."
I've actually seen this in action here in Ohio. All it takes is a matter of minutes of a 13yr old girl popping up in a chat room and she has numerous men trying to talk to her. The "girl" only has to say something to the effect of "female 13 ohio" and within seconds she has adult men instant messaging her sexual messages and sending her links to thier webcams- featuring the men masterbating. It is wrong to think that these police try to "frame" these men. They always give them a way out by reminding them they are 13. Only on a rare occasion does someone tell the girl she is too young and to leave the chat room. Most of the time the men just say "If it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother me". I just can't fathom how a 35 year old man can not be bothered at the notion that a 13 year old girl is watching him materbate, and he even takes it a step further to ask this CHILD very sexual questions and tell her explicitly what he would like to do to and with her sexually. These men are not "framed". They are sick, and are just upset that they got busted.
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