July 23, 2012
In his dimly-lit office, Chad Hoffman browses the chat rooms, but he's not looking for love. He's on the hunt for child predators. He found a possible suspect as we chatted with him in his office and explained what we were looking at.
"So this is a good example, he says he's 28. Next line I tell him how old I am and where I'm at. Then three or four lines down, he asks me for pics, so this guy may be a candidate at some point in time," said Chad Hoffman, FLDE Investigator.
Hoffman is one of 48 Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents around the state who works in Internet Crimes Against Children - or ICAC. This national unit was started with ten task forces back in 1998. Now, there are 61; all of them federally funded.
Each day, these grown men log into their computers and take on the persona of a teenaged girl.
"It's not a job for everybody. It's a job for those that are interested in the area and enjoy what they do," said FDLE Inspector Mike Duffy.
"These guys have seen a lot in their careers and um, so psychologically, they've prepared themselves. Kids- they're innocence. We don't want them to be harmed," said FDLE Chief of Investigations, Mike Phillips.
And that is why they spend copious hours surfing the web, chatting with would-be predators.
"Sometimes, ya know, we'll take over the child's identity online, um, and we'll work from there, that way were kind of stopping a real-live child from being harmed or exploited," Hoffman said.
Once an ICAC team has enough evidence, they set up a sting and lure the perps in. It's a long process, but their diligence shows - with arrests in Florida in 2011 more than tripling that of the year before.
After their arrests, some of the suspects are tried in the state system, while others have their case tried in federal court.
"When they bring us cases, the state attorney looks at them and we look at them and together we decide which ones should be prosecuted federally and which ones should be prosecuted by the state attorney's offices," said Pamela Marsh/U.S. Attorney for Florida's Northern District.
Marsh says those convicted could spend 10 to 40 years behind bars. And while the arrest numbers are up, she doesn't believe the problem will go away any time soon.
"Child predators have been around for a long time, even before the internet and I think they'll stay out there and continue to do what they're doing," Marsh said.
Which means parents, prosecutors and law enforcement need to stay vigilant to help keep children safe.
"I don't think we need to be the internet Gestapo, but you know, it's good to stay on top of where your children are going because there are predators out there," said Marsh.
For Links to helpful resources, including FLDE and the ICAC Unit's pages, scroll down to the Related Links section of this page.