Kathy Sweeney Investigates: Tracking cyber predators - KFVS12 News & Weather Cape Girardeau, Carbondale, Poplar Bluff

Kathy Sweeney Investigates: Tracking cyber predators

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Det. Jeff Shackleford track IP addresses. Det. Jeff Shackleford track IP addresses.
Det. Scott Phelps hunts for cyber predators in a chat room. Det. Scott Phelps hunts for cyber predators in a chat room.

By Kathy Sweeney -  bio | email

POPLAR BLUFF, MO (KFVS) - In a small upstairs office at the Poplar Bluff Police Department, two well-trained local detectives quietly hunt for cyber predators.

"I'll just go online to some of the popular chat locations and they'll find me," says Detective Scott Phelps.

"It's like fishing in a large lake," says Detective Jeff Shackleford.  "You're gonna catch something."

Shackleford tracks a long list of IP addresses using a special law enforcement program.  Behind each list of numbers, he tells me, you'll find a computer, a user, and a potential crime.

He tells me about three addresses he's watching right now are all based in Poplar Bluff.

"This IP address that was logged as having known or suspected child porn on yesterday's date...we've connected in real time...so that person is at their house or that computer logged online right now."

Cyber experts like Shackleford find IP addresses by tracking suspected child pornography files. 

Track the porn, Shackleford tells me, and it can lead you to the IP address of the user trying to download it or trade it.

"We know that on this date, these dates and times....the computer with that IP address was in fact offering to participate in the distribution of child porn," Shackleford says as we look at a list of numbers on his computer screen.

This isn't the only place a cyber detective will look for an illegal file.

"Cell phones, mp3 players, iPods all have mass storage capability now, so really, we have to look everywhere now."

Shackleford shows me a list of IP addresses from Cape Girardeau.  They're all just a few numbers off.  He suspects these are dynamic IP addresses, all coming from the same computer. Whoever's at the other end, Shackleford tells me, may have already committed a crime.

"At the dates and times those IP's were logged, they were offering to participate in the distribution of known or suspected child pornography files," he tells me.

After Shackleford gathers enough evidence through this process, he's ready to take the next step.

"That's when we'll actually try to make a direct connection between our undercover computer and that IP address, a computer to computer connection," Shackleford said.

As Detective Shackleford works his list of IP addresses, Detective Scott Phelps fishes for cyber predators in chat rooms all around the world.

On this day, Phelps is working undercover, posing as a teenage girl.  It takes just minutes before he gets a message.  A 38-year-old man from Colorado wants to learn about sex from a teenage girl's point of view.

"That's the first I've ever seen that line," Phelps tells me as he reads it. "As far as him saying something like that right off the bat, I've seen much worse than that.  He's asked me if I 'am sexually active, what all I've done as far as my experience.'"

If this chat crosses the line, Phelps will put together a case, and send it to his counterparts in Colorado.  Phelps often gets hits from out of state, but he's also found online predators close to home.

"Not to give too much away, but yeah...I've chatted with some people here and some of those are still ongoing. They haven't reached a point where I'm satisfied of the case, but they're definitely heading in that direction," Phelps says.  "Do you think they have any idea they're talking to a detective?," I ask.  "No," he replies.

And that anonymity is key, from Phelps' keyboard to Shackleford's screen.  These detectives may be fishing in a large lake, but the predators hiding in cyberspace have no idea how close they are to getting caught.

"Would any of these people have any idea that you're keeping an eye on them right now?" I ask Shackleford. 

"Probably not," he answers with a smile.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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