How Investigators Build Cases against Those Who Commit Online Crimes Against Minors

handcuffs on computer depicting online crimeMany people turn to the internet for legitimate purposes, such as shopping, researching information, finding fun things to do, sharing ideas, and a whole lot more.  Others turn to the internet in an effort to conceal their identities and avoid detection of criminal behavior.  While online crimes can take many forms – fraud, drug distribution, sex trafficking, murder for hire, etc. – one of the most prevalent forms of online crimes are child-related sex offenses, such as online solicitation and child pornography-related offenses. 

People often mistakenly believe that their online identities are secret and difficult to discover.  This is far from true.  Each electronic device – whether a cell phone, laptop, desktop, internet router, etc. – has some electronic identification feature that allows it to be tracked.  This information is often held by internet service providers (ISPs) (e.g., Cox, FioS, etc.) and mobile network providers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, etc.).  And, police officers can get easy access to this information provided that they have reasonable articulable suspicion to issue a search warrant for the holder of the information.

Once police have a device’s identification information, depending on the nature of the device and the information obtained, it is likely that police will be able to track the user to a particular geographic location.  For example, if a person uses a computer to access the internet through a router, the computer will be tagged with a particular IP Address, which is linked to a physical address.  A clever individual may be able to bounce or mask their IP address to confuse investigators, but this may not be enough either.

Once police have a location at which they believe an online crime is occurring, they may take several different approaches to investigate further.  A key problem for investigators in online offense cases is determining who was actually accessing the information.  While an IP Address gives law enforcement knowledge as to where the information is being accessed, it does not tell them who was accessing it.  Thus, police may stake out a home to see if there are multiple occupants, or they may approach occupants of a residence or nearby neighbors and ask questions to see if they can figure out who has access to the home.

Additionally, if police have sufficient information to believe a particular person or place is in possession of contraband, they can request a search warrant for the premises and to seize electronic devices.  The device itself is usually a holy grail for investigators.  Today, most people password protect their computers, thereby limiting who may have access.  Additionally, if police are able to run a full forensic review of a device, they can see what files, sites, or other information was being accessed while child pornography was being viewed or online solicitation was occurring.  This circumstantial evidence can further provide insight into who was doing what with the device.

While the foregoing is only a snapshot of some tactics used by the police to investigate online sex offenses against minors, it is hardly the full extent of the tools used.  If you are being investigated or have been arrested for an online crime of any kind, it is important that you work with attorneys who are familiar with the methods used by police in investigating such crimes and, more importantly, that your attorneys are familiar with the technology of online access.  The lawyers at Greenspun Shapiro PC have dealt with numerous online offenses, including online solicitation and child pornography offenses.  We can help you navigate the ins and outs of defending an online criminal offense so that you can get the best result possible under the circumstances.

Mikhail N. Lopez
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Criminal Defense and General Civil Litigation Attorney
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