ROCHELLE — Last week, State Attorney General Kwame Raoul joined local and federal prosecutors to announce new efforts to combat a rise in online child exploitation in Illinois. The efforts will include greater outreach and education for parents and teachers and a new mobile computer forensics unit that will be deployed throughout the state.
The efforts are being coordinated through the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a federally-funded project within the attorney general’s office that includes state, federal and local law enforcement agencies. Rochelle Police Det. Terry Inman is on that task force.
Inman said he’s been doing child pornography investigations for about 14 years. The process involves electronic service providers such as Facebook or Google reporting images where a child is being exploited to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
That organization does some preliminary investigation and finds out what jurisdiction would have it, and then they send it off to that jurisdiction, such as Rochelle, and the department starts an investigation.
“That's our role here, to investigate any of the tips that would pertain to Rochelle,” Inman said. “We also partner with other task force personnel from around the area, whether it's Ogle County, Lee County or the state police. When they're working cases on their end, they'll get tips that they'll start working and sometimes when a search warrant needs to be done or something they'll call for extra resources. In a nutshell, that's what it is.”
Inman said investigating cases of child pornography is not easy. He had a case earlier this year where he had to sift through 70,000 files on an individual’s device. Inman has access to a software package that will separate photos pertinent to the investigation.
“It will even parse out, fairly accurately, age groups,” Inman said. “You can say you want just still images that are real photographs of people under the age of 16. That is extremely helpful. To go through 70,000 images takes a little bit of time.”
Inman said that some of the cases can be “very heinous” and can take a toll on investigators. The task force makes different resources available such as counseling for those who work cases.
While child pornography cases may not be like other types of crimes, he said the police work process is the same at the end of the day.
“It just depends on the facts and nature of the case,” Inman said. “Essentially, they get worked sort of the same way. You get the information, you get the leads and you follow the leads. Really, it's like any other case in that regard.”
Inman said that there was some concern that cases of online child exploitation could rise due to people being home more during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the task force’s numbers for cyber tips have gone up, but he’s not sure if it’s due to people staying home or if it’s an increase in capabilities to detect trafficking of the material or if the overall acts themselves are increasing in frequency.
“I suspect it's probably a combination of all of it,” Inman said. “There's any number of variables that I think would contribute to an increase in our workload and caseload."
Rochelle Police Chief Eric Higby said the internet has “changed everything” as far as policing. His department and Inman also work on other types of cyber crimes such as electronic thefts of money.
He believes the department will have to put another detective through the amount of cyber crime training Inman has had in the future if things keep trending in the way they have.
“You have entire charges, cyber bullying, the electronic thefts,” Higby said. “All of this stuff, we never used to have. The child porn, all those crimes you never used to have. It's impacted us tremendously in terms of our resources. How you can clear these cases and how difficult they are. When I started here, Rochelle was one of the first agencies that had in-car computers. And now, look at where we're at. It's crazy to think that in 25 years it's changed that much."
Inman has had training in recent years in white collar crimes and crimes against the elderly. He’s currently working on a case involving an email system being hacked for access to financial data. This week, he’s taking a class on cryptocurrency. He’s worked on a couple of “Nigerian scam” cases where he was able to arrest people.
“It happens here,” Inman said. “It's not just the FBI that deals with those. A lot of times we'll get them and talk to the FBI and they'll tell us to run it down and see what happens. They're interesting because it's not the typical case and it requires diving into a world that we don't spend a whole lot of time in. It's pretty interesting."
Inman said he believes there’s “definitely a learning curve” when it comes to investigating cyber crime. His hope is to try to get ahead of the curve and said there’s a lot of training out there between international, national and federal resources.
He believes the easiest way to get better at solving cyber crimes is networking with other agencies and detectives. Unfortunately, the nature of cyber crimes may always have law enforcement at a time disadvantage.
“While the bad guy is sitting here looking at computers all day long and thinking how to access things like financial accounts and exploit them and steal, he's got all the time in the world to figure that out,” Inman said. “His clock doesn't start running until he starts taking steps to do that. When we have to respond, we have to do it fairly quickly.”