We’ve all seen the fictional dramas, like NBC’s Law and Order SVU and reality shows like Cops. But what we don’t see are the real investigators working to keep real predators off the streets and offline.
“Our work is very technical. A lot of the things that we do entail researching online accounts and various crimes that have been committed through the use of the internet” said Josh Sconiers SVU Investigator.
“Primarily the area that we try to stay focused on is the panhandle region but we do work with federal agencies” said Matt Williams SVU Investigator.
For the Walton County Cyber-Crimes Special Victims Unit bringing online sexual predators to justice isn’t as simple as it seems on TV.
“For us we have dual roles. We’re the investigator and we’re the forensic examiner. So we go up before the court as an expert witness in the field of computers and digital media extraction” said Sconiers.
While most cases on TV are solved within an hour, realistically they can take much longer.
“The longest case that I’ve actively investigated went on for three years where a guy was extorting different juvenile females all over the U.S. For nude images of them” said Sconiers.
Investigators Josh Sconiers and Matt Williams not only scour the web looking for criminals. They also serve as crime scene investigators when a crime involves technology.
“We are the support element for collecting evidence or gathering evidence for any device that is digital that was used in the commission of the crime or contains evidence of the crime” said Sconiers.
However their work doesn’t always keep them behind a computer – and they see a lot of things that would make most people cringe.
“A lot of people say how can you do what you do day in to day out? It’s the most disgusting stuff you’ll ever see. To see an infant child being raped or a five year-old. To read through some of the chats where you see twelve and thirteen year olds just being extorted by guys much like the process i told you a minute ago and you’re sitting there reading it saying how can they do this to these girls” said Sconiers.
The Walton county Cyber-Crimes Special Victims Unit is tasked with making the internet a safer place to surf. One of the ways they do that is catching suspects soliciting underage boys and girls for sex. Investigators visit chat rooms, social networks and other websites which may be a visiting ground for predators.
"At some point during the communication the individual will solicit the minor a female or whatever we're posing to be to engage in sexual activity" said Williams.
Investigator Matt Williams says the predator then tries to get the minor to meet them. Once that happens, detectives only have a short time to work out plans to take the predator down.
"When it gets to that level we continue the communication with them and there's a lot involved with planning. It's all last minute, a lot of last minute planning to make sure we have the resources we have” said Williams.
Part of that planning is making sure the meeting happens at a place that does not put anyone else in harm’s way.
"You know we're not going to possibly have a meeting location inside a Wal-Mart where there could be hundreds however many people. We're going to try and pick an area that's going to be advantageous for us as law enforcement" said Williams.
“The justice is served whenever you find the suspect and you know that they cannot do this to anybody else. Whether or not he gets ten, fifteen years in prison or he gets a hundred years in prison is irrelevant to me. It's to know that he will not be doing this to somebody else" said Sconiers.
In most cases, suspects are taken in without force.
Protecting kids from online predators is a big job for any parent. According to the crimes against children, one out of every five teenagers who spend time online are solicited for sex. In Walton County, a new program is helping teach teens the safe way to use the internet.
Walton Middle School Principal Tripp Hope knows part of his job is keeping students safe while they're at school. The job is even tougher when they’re online while on campus.
"We're in the world, the age of technology now and it's so more advanced than my knowledge of it but the problem is we got to use it in the correct way" said Hope.
That's where Matt Williams Walton County Cyber-Crimes Special Victims Unit comes in.
"If we can get the message out there to these juveniles; all the middle school grades and the high school grades of some of the laws that are being violated. I mean sexting is a huge problem in this county" said Williams.
"We need to educate these students the importance of not going on and giving a lot of information because there are people out there who actually stalk these students" said Hope.
The county offers a cyber-safety class which teaches students things like how to protect themselves on social networking sites.
"The main thing is they need to go into the privacy settings and the security settings and just spend a few minutes on it. Sit there and read everything" said Williams.
Williams says students have to be careful about what information they include in their online profiles.
"When you're setting up your profile you don't have to give your whole life history in the profile. If it asks you about me you can leave it blank.” Said Williams.
Cyber safety is more than just kids knowing who's on the other side of the monitor though. It's about parents being involved at home.
"I will be monitoring what's out there on their social media sites to make sure these types of people cannot collect enough evidence or information to where they put my children in the same place that these other children have been put it" said Sconiers.
There are lots of great tips for parents and kids to learn about online safety. Just go to SafeFlorida.net