Tech to Help Online Safety

Technology makes many aspects of our daily lives easier – but as local law enforcement knows all too well, the same unfortunately goes for online predators seeking to meet young children for illicit sexual activity.

The Wheeling Police Department on Wednesday received about $2,000 worth of computer equipment from the Wheeling Moose Lodge 2621 through one of its partner agencies, the Safe Surfin’ Foundation. This equipment will be used exclusively to track online sexual predators who may be targeting children in Internet chat rooms.

“Fifty years ago, you worried about the predators at the playground,” said Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger. “Unfortunately, with the advent of the Internet, those ‘playgrounds’ cross all jurisdictional boundaries.”

According to information from the Safe Surfin’ Foundation, 93 percent of all children use the Internet in some capacity. Of those, 75 percent share personal information about themselves and their families.

What’s more, according to the foundation, one in five teenagers has received an unwanted sexual solicitation online.

Better equipping police departments to find online predators allows them to stop crimes before they happen rather than merely react to them, said foundation representative Randall Smith Jr., who also is employed by the Bedford County, Va., Sheriff’s Department.

The problem hit close to home last year, when a 12-year-old Wheeling Island girl was sexually assaulted by a 25-year-old who drove five hours to meet her after the two interacted online and both reportedly lied about their ages.

David Maya of Howard County, Md., was sentenced to six to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to the crime.

Sting operations in which police pose as potential underage victims in Internet chat rooms have drawn criticism from some who say the practice is a form of entrapment, setting people up to commit crimes.

But that’s not the case, according to a Wheeling police detective who asked not to be identified due to the undercover nature of the work – such predators go online with one goal in mind, and it often takes only a few messages back and forth before they begin asking their young targets to provide sexually explicit images.

Most people “have no idea what goes on,” the detective said. “It’s overwhelming.”