If anyone has any doubt about the dangers lurking for children and teens on the internet, Chris McDonald can clear up any uncertainty. There are dangers. And they only continue to get worse.
As the head of Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) unit, he and his crew of nine agents and forensic investigators see it firsthand on a daily basis.
“I yell it from the rooftops to anyone who will listen to me,” McDonald told Cowboy Sate Daily in a telephone call from his office in Cheyenne, where he has the stats to back up the warning.
In 2019, he and his crew received and investigated 263 cyber tips about child pornography and other hazards.
That number nearly doubled during the pandemic, with 521 cyber tips received in 2020. This year the office has already received 425 tips to date.
The tips come in from a number of different organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok and Google, as well as internet service providers. These tips mostly are based on algorithms of images suspected to be child pornography, user activity and nefarious communication in chat groups and other online platforms.
In recent years, ICAC, funded by a federal grant under the DCI, has investigated everything from production and distribution of child exploitation images, which McDonald refuses to label as pornography, as well as child sexploitation cases which, in his estimation, seem to be on the rise.
Incidents of child sexploitation occur after a child or teen links up with a predator online through any number of forums.
The predator then obtains a picture from the minor’s social media page and doctors the image. He or she then uses the doctored image to blackmail the child to get more explicit images or videos. The new images or videos are then shared online.
It’s a lucrative business for some, McDonald said, though many get caught.
In the past year, for example, the ICAC busted a Sheridan mom sharing images of her child with a prisoner in Mississippi she met online.
The inmate, who was already serving a multi-decade sentence for abusing a child, was receiving images from the mother through a child messenger app on Facebook.
Other busts include two Casper men, Ray Farley (aka Ray Lucero) and Conner Farley, for recording themselves sexually abusing three small children in multiple images and videos.
Another Casper man, Liam Van Damme, was sentenced for uploading child pornography using a Google account and a Smug-Flickr account.
After 20 years as a law enforcement officer, including as an undercover narcotics agent, McDonald thought he could no longer be surprised by the types of crimes he’s seen.
He was wrong. It’s much worse than he imagined
And while he and his crew work on a daily basis to stamp out online predators, he encourages parents to do their part by carefully monitoring their children’s online activities and knowing the apps they use, as well as the mechanics of their child’s particular smartphone.
Technology is not going anywhere, McDonald noted, so parents need to arm themselves with knowledge of the dangers that are out there.
What investigators are currently seeing a lot of, McDonald said, is increased activity on Snapchat, with predators targeting children and teens on TikTok through their embedded Snapchat identities, which makes searching easy.
Predators then contact those users on Snapchat, acting like peers in an attempt to groom them online. This might lead to them doctoring an image of the teen or even just soliciting a nude image or video, which the predator then trades online with other predators in social media chat groups such as Facebook, Discord, Kik and others.
“It’s a form of currency,” McDonald said. “Most offenders have a specific age range they are interested in and trade those images accordingly.”
Another trend they are seeing right now is the targeting of even younger kids between 8 and 10 years old.
The good news is that Google, various app developers and other internet platforms are getting much savvier about identifying these images and sharing them with law enforcement.
McDonald himself sifts through about 99% of all submitted cyber tips before assigning them to an ICAC investigator or one of their six partner agencies throughout the state in counties including Sweetwater, Teton, Uinta, Natrona and Johnson.
These partnerships in tandem with the advanced skills of his crew are proving to be effective, McDonald said.
He estimated the ICAC has identified and rescued 14 victims this year alone and 15 the year prior.
McDonald is a parent himself, and if he has any advice for other parents, it’s talk to your children and know what they are up to online.
“Communication is so critical,” McDonald said, “including talking to your kid about what to do if an adult tries to approach them online. No adult should ever have a romantic interest in a child.”
Predators try to blame their victims, he added, but they know what they’re doing.
For more information about protecting children online, see NCMEC’s NetSmatz for resources for parents and children.