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On Craigslist, a mainstream Web site of classified ads, a few clicks of a mouse let you locate a nearby estate sale, find a plumber...or hire a teenager named Zoey to "play with you," as she says in her "erotic services" posting. Shocked? Well, such sordid new online services are now found across the nation. Zoey claims to have a "body made for sin" and asks potential clients to make a "suggested donation" of $180 for a half hour of her time. While she claims she's 18 -- "a fun-loving barely legal teen," one ad says -- she looks younger. Photos show her sitting on a bed, wearing red Hello Kitty panties and clutching a floppy-eared stuffed bunny.
The use of the Internet to exploit girls like Zoey is "a growing trend," says the FBI's John Gillies, recently chief of the bureau's violent crimes section. In this country as many as 200,000 youngsters annually are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation, according to a Department of Justice-sponsored study. The victims come from diverse backgrounds: Gillies points out that of some 900 cases reported between 2005 and 2006 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), 42 percent involved white girls, 33 percent African Americans, 16 percent Hispanics, and 1 percent each Asians and Native Americans.
Girls snared by the Internet include some from middle-class families. Michelle Collins, director of NCMEC's Exploited Child Division, agrees, saying they're seeing "cases of everyday suburban girls going online where they're being enticed into relationships with predatory men."
"Technology has changed the prostitution business," explains Lois Lee, PhD, JD, director of Children of the Night, a nonprofit that helps juveniles caught up in this world. This is because the Internet makes it safer for pimps to operate. "It's hard to defend girls on the street where gang members can rape and rob them," says Dr. Lee. "But online pimps can advertise the girls and evade the brutality of the gangs. Business is booming." Exactly how much money is made from online prostitution is unknown, however, because the approach is new and the pimps so difficult to track.
Dr. Lee says most youngsters sold online by pimps are girls. (Most boys involved in this activity operate independently, she says.) Many of the girls share a psychological profile: lonely, vulnerable, and troubled. Some come from abusive families. Using personal computers, they visit online chat rooms and social networking sites in search of compassion and companionship. Instead they find themselves the targets of predators disguised as soul mates.
"Many of the girls suffer from low self-esteem," says Dr. Lee. "The pimp identifies them and tells them he'll take care of them." Once he establishes a relationship and gets the girl to meet him, the sweet talk is over. "Some pimps get girls hooked on drugs or rape them into submission," says Dr. Lee.
Concerned laypeople and professionals are working to safeguard teens from Internet-fueled sexual exploitation. The three women profiled here are committed to rescuing these children and stopping the predators.
When Special Agent Minerva Shelton transferred from Sacramento's gangs unit to its crimes-against-children squad almost two years ago, she noticed a troubling rise in teens advertised online. To target the girls' Internet pimps, she set up a task force that works with police. Once a girl agrees to provide an undercover agent with sex for a fee, the team detains her and goes to work with a kind but firm interrogation aimed at finding help for the girl and building a case against the pimp.
Shelton, 39, and her team have rescued more than a dozen girls from prostitution in the past year alone. The daughter of farm workers from Mexico, she worked her way through the University of New Mexico and earned degree in criminal justice in 1992. She then joined the Army as a specialist in military intelligence and, in 1997, began a five year stint as a police officer in El Paso, Texas. In 2002 she joined the FBI.
"I wanted to keep giving back to the country that's given me so much," says Shelton, who's married to a police officer and has two children, ages 16 and 4. "I'm living the American dream."
But Shelton's work at the FBI has also exposed her to a nightmare. She recalls one teen who had been beaten for withholding $1 of her earnings. "She wanted an ice cream," explains Shelton. "I really want to get the violent people who exploit these juveniles."
Shelton often urges local police departments to involve her FBI unit in busting pimps, because convictions stemming from a federal investigation can result in longer sentences than those obtained under some state laws. In certain cases -- such as when a child involved is under 14 -- a federal conviction can result in life imprisonment.
Shelton rejoices when she can reunite a youngster with loving relatives or place her with a caring foster family. "My heart goes out to these girls," Shelton says. "Every time I get through to one of them, I consider it a success. I am certain that they can turn their lives around."
As commander of a four-member human-trafficking unit, Sergeant Detective Kelley O'Connell regards child sexual exploitation as a form of slavery. Whenever she gets a call from a Boston area police department about a girl involved in this activity, she meets her -- day or night -- to persuade her to quit selling herself and provide information on her pimp. "The pimps are vicious, and the johns are uncaring sex addicts," says O'Connell, 46. "But the victims need our sympathy."
A 22-year veteran of the Boston Police Department, O'Connell worked cases ranging from drive-by shootings to gangland turf wars before taking on child prostitution in 2005. Partnering with district police officers and federal Internet-crime specialists, O'Connell estimates she's rescued nearly 250 girls during the past two years through a combination of old-fashioned police work and 21st-century cyber tools.
O'Connell began this particular work after she noticed young girls being booked by police and wondered why. Many had been sexually exploited. She took her experience with gangs and human trafficking and put it to use in a new unit handling juvenile prostitution.
She discovered that the trail led to cyberspace: Whereas pimps were once adult men peddling grownup women, a new breed of younger, more violent gang members is selling girls online. These so called sneaker pimps -- named for their footwear -- look for girls whose profiles on social networking Web sites like MySpace indicate vulnerability.
"A lot of teen girls post risque photos and talk about being bored and unhappy," says O'Connell. "Some will respond to men who claim they want to take care of the girls and buy them nice things." After enticing the youngsters to leave home, the pimps then bully them into selling themselves, posting their photos in ads on Web sites that offer sex services.
Confronted with this new form of exploitation, O'Connell vowed to help these at-risk girls "before they show up online and then end up in my police station." She recalls one teen from a Boston suburb who met a 20-something man last year through MySpace and agreed to an in-person meeting. A romance developed. In spring 2006 he took the teenager to Florida and coerced her into becoming a street prostitute.
O'Connell, who took the call from the girl's parents about their runaway daughter, shared the report with police departments nationwide. Two days after the teen started turning tricks in Florida, police were able to arrest her on charges of prostitution. They nabbed the pimp in a later operation.
O'Connell and a local FBI agent arranged for the girl to enter a California residential facility of Children of the Night, the nonprofit run by Dr. Lee. The pimp is currently in jail awaiting trial.
"My greatest satisfaction is helping a kid turn her life around," O'Connell says. "These kids need to see that there's a world out there other than a pimp and a new pair of shoes."
The daughter of a policeman and wife of a paramedic, O'Connell has three children (ages 11, 14, and 17) of her own and frequently gives speeches to teenagers at schools and group homes on making smart choices and avoiding online trouble.
"I see myself as a rescuer," O'Connell says, "trying to make a difference in girls' lives."
Every morning at 8:30, Joell Schigur logs on to her laptop to find reports of several dozen messages from men looking for pornographic images of underage girls or seeking to have sex with them. The messages, e-mailed to her by undercover police officers across Wisconsin, come from men lurking in Internet chat rooms and social networking sites. Schigur reviews the exchanges and may approve a sting operation, in which the officers set up a meeting to snare the perpetrator, or she may suggest further investigation to confirm the suspect's intentions.
Not until they are charged do the online predators -- typically educated white men in their 20s or older, says Schigur -- learn that the recipient of their sexual solicitation wasn't an impressionable girl but a member of a team led by a hard-charging 37-year-old state agent dedicated to stopping those who use the Internet to engage in child sexual exploitation. Since 2004 Schigur has led the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, a team of 10 undercover agents and forensic computer analysts who work with 42 police and sheriff's departments around the state.
Schigur and her team have observed that the predators sometimes gain girls' confidence by pretending to be teenage boys, as well as by flattering them and sending gifts. The presents may be video-enabled cell phones or camcorders, for example; in return, some girls agree to film themselves masturbating and e-mail the video to their newfound online "friends."
Even though the teens choose to participate in the exchange, they are victims, stresses Schigur. Underage kids are not mature enough to assess these situations fully, she explains. Further, she notes, the Internet offenders understand this immaturity and have figured out how to manipulate children. Though Schigur does not blame the kids, she finds some fault with parents, complaining that many are unaware of online dangers and thus fail to warn their children.
A national leader among the 46 ICAC task forces, Schigur's group investigated 400 cases and arrested 110 individuals in 2006. In the previous year it arrested 120 predators -- then a national ICAC record. The team reports a conviction rate of more than 80 percent.
By analyzing predators' Internet communications, Schigur's team can trace messages to victims. As a result, her team rescued 60 children in 2006. "We're proud of saving kids," says Schigur. "But it's heartbreaking to know there are more who need help."
Schigur's interest in fighting crime began in college when, as a student in the early 1990s, she took a criminology class to fulfill a graduation requirement. "It made me feel I could make a difference," she recalls. After graduating in 1993, she went to work for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, where she rose to become supervisor of the ICAC unit. Along the way she married a middle school principal and had three children -- now 10, 6, and 4. "I probably spoil my kids because I see too many others who are unable to lead the life they want," she says.
Schigur knows that protecting kids against Internet-aided exploitation in a meaningful way entails finding lasting solutions. Last year she spent many hours of her own time helping state legislators craft a Wisconsin law that stiffened penalties there. Before Schigur's efforts, juvenile sex crimes in Wisconsin could result in a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison. Now such actions have more serious repercussions. Sexual exploitation of a child, for example, could land a predator behind bars for a maximum of 40 years, with a fine of up to $100,000.
"Anyone who does this work is haunted by what they see," she says.
You can help protect your kids from online predators by following this checklist:
Fueling the rise in underage sexual exploitation is the proliferation of Web sites, including Craigslist, My Red Book, and others, that allow customers to post ads for X-rated services. Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, says his company makes an active effort to police its site for ads for illegal activities (including underage prostitution). But, he says, he's not aware of any reliable way to determine the age of someone accessing a Web site. He notes that, among other precautions, his company provides a system that allows users to flag inappropriate postings, which are removed. He notes that newspapers and Yellow Pages also offer ads of this type. In addition, the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996 exempts Internet companies from liability for user-posted content.
But some legislators feel that Web companies could do more to police their sites for child sexual exploitation. To support that concept, Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and representative Earl Pomeroy (D.-N.Dak.) introduced the Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007, or KIDs act. it calls for requiring convicted sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses with a federal law enforcement registry. "The proposed legislation would make it more difficult for these criminals to reach our children," says Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.), one of the bill's 80-plus cosponsors from both parties. (At press time, the bill had yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing.)
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2008.