Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Internet Predators and Their Prey

Trolling the 'Net

Sexual predators know precisely what they're looking for because their fantasies are fixated on a specific type of prey, e.g., prepubescent boys or 16-year-old girls. When they find what they seek, they hone in on those targets. If such a child expresses conflicts with adults, depression, loneliness, or the need for love, that's all a predator needs to start manipulating. They offer emotional support and gradually work their way into inviting the child to meet them offline. They make certain the child keeps "the secret" and they use specific tactics to isolate the child from friends and family. Often they will send gifts, particularly web cams or paid phone cards, and they will seem trustworthy to the child. It's like the old "candy" ploy.

Detective Richard Peffall, of the Montgomery County Major Crimes Unit in Pennsylvania, has been involved in a long-term sting operation that utilizes officers who look for these predators in teen chat rooms. What they find is nothing different from what vice cops have always found.

"The Internet predators of today," Peffall says, "are the same guys that we would catch standing outside of school yards 30 years ago when I started in police work. These criminals are the same sick deviate individuals that preyed on children in the past; the Internet has just created an entirely new avenue for them to find victims. With more than 40 arrests of 'travelers,' the most common initial excuse we hear is, 'I was just coming to warn them about how dangerous it is to meet strangers from the internet.' When asked to explain why they came with a pocketful of condoms, and confronted with evidence of their chats, they quickly give in."

Peffall insists that parents must be the first line of defense. "Know who your kids are chatting with," he suggests. "Keep the computer out of their bedrooms and in a common area. And talk to your kids about this danger."

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