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The Problem Of Accessing Cybersex Risk
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 08/29/2011

Cybercrime 02 Those employed in community corrections are constantly working to identify high risk cases and to focus supervision efforts on those cases. This is one of the principles of evidence based practices in community corrections. The general public considers high risk cases as those involving sex offenders. However, not all sex offender cases represent the same high risk or dare I say even a greater risk than other offender cases. But what about sex offenders in which the Internet is involved, so called “Internet sex crimes”? Who are they and what kind of risk do they represent?

Some folks think an Internet sex crime is the adult caught on Dateline’s show, “Catch a Predator”, trying to hook up with a kid, but get Chris Hanson and the police instead. For some it is the adult or young adult sending, soliciting, and or receiving illicit images or text from young teenagers or children, otherwise known as “sexting.” Still others are thinking of the guy downloading or trading child porn with other offenders. There are also those offenders who use the Internet to locate, lure, and rape both children and/or adults. So who is right? Which of these is an Internet Sex Crime? Well they all can be. That is exactly part of the problem. We often are talking about different offenses. We end up painting these broad risk assessments based upon a “sex crime” and the “Internet” and we get mixed results. Some folks feel is it is all illegal digital make believe and it is not a big deal. At the other extreme are folks that think everyone is a cyber-Hannibal Lecter.

Well lets try to refine the definitions and put some numbers to the categories to see if we can focus in on the risk. Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor (2003) describe a review of 2,577 arrests for Internet sex crimes against minors for a 12 month period starting July 1, 2000. They were able to identify three mutually exclusive types. Specifically,
  1. Internet crimes against an identified victim, which included sexual assaults and production of child pornography, which made up 39% of all arrests;
  2. Internet Solicitations to Undercover Law Enforcement posting as an adult with no identified victim, 25% of all arrests; and
  3. Possession, distribution, or trading of child pornography via the Internet, with no actual assault or solicitation of an undercover agent, 36% of all arrests.

They were able to further refine the first category where a real victim was involved. They found that 20% of all arrests involved cases where the offender used the Internet to initiate a relationship with the minor victim and 19% of all arrests were cases in which the offender was a family member or prior acquaintance of the minor. Wow…20% of all cases involved a real kid victim, who was unknown to the offender previously. As I recalled there was something about “stranger danger” risks, I decided to do some digging and look at risk assessment tools on this issue.

One of the most used sex offender risk assessment tools is the Static-1999, which has been updated to the Static-2002 (Static-2002-R). One caveat here. I am not trained in these instruments or certified to administer them. That said, I am aware that these assessment tools look at stranger and unrelated victims as factors used in assessing risk. As I have been reading for a number of years and think I have a handle on that skill, I took a brief look at the Coding Rules for Static-2002. There are some interesting rules on stranger victims as they relate to the Internet. Specifically, “A victim is considered a stranger if either the victim did not know the offender at least 24 hours before the initial offence and/or the offender did not know the victim for at least 24 hours before the initial offence. Victims contacted over the Internet are not normally considered strangers unless a meeting was planned for a time less than 24 hours after initial communication.”

The whole purpose of giving points on this is that individuals whose victims are strangers have a greater risk. I suppose that offenders who target strangers do so because they might think they are less likely to get caught, as in it might be harder to identify them. But doesn’t attempting to reach a minor geographically located far from where an offender can be identified and who is unknown by the minor’s parents/guardians seem to fit that rationale? What about cases where the offender lies to the victim about who they are and the victim has no idea who they really are? I mean there are cases where the offender portrays themselves as someone else online to lure the minor in and to get them to trust them. How does this 24 hour rule play out if the offender is providing false information to the minor online? What if that offender brings weapons or tools to dispose of a body to the planned meeting? Again, I am no way an expert in this but how are those intentions captured in these risk assessment?

Ironically, if an offender targets a male victim during an Internet sting case and it really is a cop, they get a point for a “male victim.” (Any male victims is one of those scoring factors for risk). The reason is the offender “intended” to go after a male victim. Well doesn’t an offender who goes online to hook up with a minor in another state intend to meet a “stranger”?

Okay, let me take this risk assessment and Internet sex offenses in another direction. Specifically, Seto, Hanson, and Babchishin (2011) recently published an article reflecting their review of numerous studies. They found:
  1. Approximately 1 in 8 online sex offenders (12%) have an officially known contact sexual offense history at the time of their offense;
  2. Approximately one in two (55%) online offenders admitted to a contact sexual offense in the six studies that had self-report data ; and
  3. 4.6% of online offenders committed a new sexual offense of some kind during a 1.5- to 6-year follow-up . (2.0% committed a contact sexual offense and 3.4% committed a new child pornography offense.)

They concluded that …” that there may be a distinct subgroup of online-only offenders who pose relatively low risk of committing contact sexual offenses in the future.” (p. 125). Did anyone notice they used the term online sex offender? Who are they talking about? Well, they provide the following explanation:
“ …online offenders and online offending to refer to sexual crimes that involve the use of Internet and related technologies. This would include possession or distribution of child pornography via the Internet, possession or distribution of other illegal pornography content, and use of the Internet to solicit minors for sexual purposes.”

They go on to note that most of the research is focused on child pornography offenders. This is kind of interesting considering the numbers of Internet sting arrests and those involving real victims of abuse noted earlier. Additionally, they specifically consider offenses where the Internet is merely used as a communication tool and is not central to the offense as “offline offending.” They cite as an example an uncle who uses e-mail to communicate with his victim niece. They conclude by noting:
“The low recidivism rates of online offenders may be used by some readers to minimize the seriousness of the online crimes committed. We believe this would be a mistake. Child pornography is a serious crime because it contributes to the sexual exploitation of children by creating demand for content, it offends community standards and values, and it is viewed by many members of the public as a serious crime. It would also be a mistake to fail to differentiate online offenders by the risk they pose. Although the research on risk factors is limited, we believe that the risk factors for online offenders are likely to be the same risk factors found for offline offenders (i.e., sexual deviancy, antisocial orientation, and intimacy deficits). Until research suggests otherwise, we recommend that valid measures of these risk factors should be used by the police, courts, correctional systems, and clinicians to prioritize interventions for individuals involved in online sexual offenses.” (p. 140)”

I think that their study is intriguing, particularly as it points to evidence of a lower risk for some NOT all online sex offenders. But more importantly, I also think it is a rally call for more study of cases involving Internet sex crimes beyond just child pornography. We now are seeing cases where sex offenders are using social networking sites to meet adult victims. I wrote about this in The Perfect Storm: Cyberspace Criminality. We also are seeing a lot of sexting cases talked about in the media. Are they really different than the Internet luring cases we have dealt with in the past? What I would really like to see is a tool that fully incorporates Internet/computer behavior in the process of risk assessment. Brake and Tanner (2007) have developed a two factor risk grid that may be of help in determining the appropriate monitoring level for sex offenders. This grid incorporates the offender’s Internet behavior history and their overall risk of acting out as based upon various sex assessment tool, one of which is the Static-99. Their article is called Determining the Need for Internet Monitoring of Sex Offenders. We need more work like theirs.

I might add someone better hurry up on this research. States are now being subject to law suits for passing Internet restrictions. Lousiana is now being sued by the ACLU over its recent enacted sex offender restrictions on social networking sites. There is also a conference this week to discuss removing pedophilia from the American Psychiatric Association’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Wow… so someone who abuses a child might not be considered having a mental health concern or “mad.” I guess that just leaves the option that they are just “bad”… we know where bad folks go. What does all this mean for the community corrections officers out there trying to supervise these cases? Follow Seto, Hanson, and Babchishin advice about using current measures of risk for these cases. I would couple that advice with becoming knowledgeable about how offending and Internet behavior intersect. For now I have to look for my cigar. Be safe out there!


Brake, S. and Tanner, Jim, Determining the Need for Internet Monitoring of Sex Offenders. Retrieved from http://www.kbsolutions.com/MonitoringNeed.pdf

CNN News, ACLU Seeks to Block New Louisiana Sex Offender Law. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2011/CRIME/08/16/louisiana.sex.offender.law

Implementing Evidence-Based Practice in Community Correcitons: The Principles of Effective Internvention, Retrieved from http://nicic.gov/Library/019342

Pnenix, A.; Doren, D.; Helmus, L.; Hanson, K. and Thornton D. Coding Rules for Static-2002. Retreived from http://www.static99.org/pdfdocs/static2002codingrules.pdf

Rossomando, J. (2011, August 15) “Conference Aims to Normalize Pedophilia”, The Daily Caller Retrieved from http://dailycaller.com/2011/08/15/conference-aims-to-normalize-pedophilia/#ixzz1VObj3Vmo

Seto, M; Hanson, K. and Babchishin, K. (2010) “Contact Sexual Offending by Men With Online Sexual Offenses” Sex Abuse 23: 124-145

Wolak, J.; Mitchell, K.; and Finkelhor, D. (2003) Internet Sex Crimes Against Minors: The Response of Law Enforcement, Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire. Retreived from http://www.missingkids.com/en_US/publications/NC132.pdf


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